It’s All in the Orchestration

Surveys have shown that speaking before an audience is one of the most common fears among people from all walks of life. In talking to many individuals over the years who harbor this fear, I’ve often heard them say, “I’m just not a good speaker.” Those words imply that they believe the ability to speak in front of an audience is determined at birth.

As with just about any skill, to a great extent that’s true. Natural ability is always helpful. But natural ability is not what carries the day.

One of the best speakers I’ve heard in a long time is Michael Cloud, who is also a first-class speechwriter. A couple of weeks after I heard him speak, Michael sent me an excellent article he wrote titled “The 7 Deadly Public Speaking Sins … and How to Avoid Them.”

I don’t have room to review all seven sins here, but I can tell you that the first deadly sin he lists is the failure to practice properly. He says that a lot of speakers simply don’t practice enough. Others practice cavalierly and haphazardly, merely going through the motions. And — incredible as it may seem — some speakers don’t practice at all.

Cloud goes on to say that many speakers just try to “wing it.” Their attitude is, “Good enough is good enough.” During a subsequent telephone discussion, he extended this point by telling me something most people might find hard to believe — that the best natural speakers are often the worst-performing speakers.

How can this be? Because speakers with great natural talent usually feel relaxed and in control in front of an audience. Which in turn causes many of them to believe they don’t need to practice.

I can relate to this, because I fell into the overconfidence trap early in my career. From a very young age, I recognized that I had a gift of gab, and I mistakenly believed that this ability was all it took to be a great public speaker.

The end of this ludicrous miscalculation came during a performance in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. At the time, my second book, Looking Out for #1, had just ascended to #1 on The New York Times bestseller list, and I was drunk on the wine of adulation. I was scheduled to give a speech before an audience of 3,000 people, all of whom I assumed were Robert Ringer disciples.

After an introduction that would have made Johnny Carson envious, I strode onto the stage and began gabbing. I was all over the lot … every sentence flooded with “uhs” … repeating myself endlessly … and ad-libbing “jokes” that brought only blank stares from the audience.

Being the perceptive young man I was, after about 10 minutes I sensed that I was in big trouble. When raw eggs and tomatoes are flying at you from every direction, you begin to suspect that the audience is not real impressed with either your message or delivery.

And when virtually everyone in the room begins to nervously cough, it’s all you can do to resist calling out, “Mom! Come get me, quick!” (I’ll never forgive her for not coming to my rescue when I needed her most.)

Since that embarrassing fiasco, I’ve witnessed many high-profile people giving speeches that ranged from mediocre to abysmal. In every case, it’s been obvious to me that the speaker was arrogantly and/or ignorantly winging it.

Having said this, here’s the painful truth about one of the best-kept secrets of great public speakers: They orchestrate their speeches down to the last detail. What I’m talking about here is tireless, ongoing practice — not only every word, but precise body language, facial expressions, voice inflection, and more.

In this respect, Zig Ziglar comes to mind. When Zig steps onto the stage, it’s like watching a great actor perform Othello. Years ago, I went to two Zig Ziglar speeches in the space of about six months, and not only was every word and every sentence exactly the same — and delivered in precisely the same manner — but he even got down on one knee at precisely the same moment. It was more dramatic than watching Larry Parks sing “Mammy” in The Jolson Story.

So, it’s no mystery why Zig Ziglar’s speeches have enthralled audiences for decades. Clearly, he is a master craftsman who has orchestrated his presentations to perfection.

Tony Robbins is another excellent example of high-level orchestration. Love him or hate him, he’s arguably the most dynamic, passionate speaker on the planet. When you watch Robbins, you get a sense that the words are spontaneously flowing from his mouth as fast as he can think — and that his thinking mechanism is always on fast-forward.

But I noticed an interesting thing during a Robbins speech that I attended in Hawaii some years ago. He was explaining how important it is to display a high energy level. To make his point, he dashed down the center aisle to the back of the room, then started walking very slowly toward the stage.

As he walked, his shoulders drooped and he spoke very slowly in an effort to comically demonstrate what a person with low energy looks and sounds like. In perfect synch with his Step’n Fetchit imitation, a sound resembling the clop of horse hoofs on a cobblestone street could be heard throughout the room.

I looked around to see where the sound was coming from, and, lo and behold, the audio technician was supplying the special effects. I later learned that Robbins brings his own sound man with him to all speaking gigs — which is about as far from winging it as one can get. Again, no mystery why he’s a world-class speaker: incredibly detailed orchestration.

By contrast, I recall a famous NFL quarterback telling me years ago, when he was in the national spotlight, that he did quite a bit of public speaking in the off season. I asked him how much time he spent practicing, and he replied, “Shucks, I don’t practice. I don’t believe in giving canned speeches. I come across better when I’m spontaneous. I just get up and talk about whatever’s on my mind.”

There’s a term to describe this kind of attitude: arrogance of the ignorant. As you might have guessed, after his career ended, this fellow disappeared from the speaking circuit entirely. So much for just getting up and talking about whatever’s on your mind.

But orchestration isn’t confined to public speaking. On the contrary, it’s one of the keys to success in all professions.

In the early eighties, I saw Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme perform at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. At the time, they were at the top of the entertainment ladder, and they put on a terrific show. What I enjoyed most about their act were their humorous ad-libs and spontaneous ribbing of one another. They were muffing lines, clowning around, and cracking up on stage.

In fact, I enjoyed their act so much that I went back the next night to see it again. Surprise! Every line I had thought to be spontaneous was repeated verbatim the second time around — right down to their facial expressions, the way they laughed, their body language, and their timing. They muffed the exact same lines and cracked up in precisely the same manner and at precisely the same moments as the night before.

There was no spontaneity whatsoever. Zippo. The entire act was orchestrated from start to finish. It was truly perfected to the nth degree.

I subsequently told a good friend of mine who had been Bob Hope’s producer for many years about what I had witnessed in Las Vegas. His response: “Welcome to the world.”

My friend assured me that everything in show business is orchestrated, especially the lines you perceive to be ad-libbed. He went on to explain: “You know those spontaneous moments on variety shows when the performers are cracking up in front of the audience? It’s all orchestrated — every laugh, every grimace, every pratfall.” He emphasized that professionals don’t go in front of the cameras until they have every word and gesture down cold.

That brings me to my final example of orchestration, Tom Brady. You may recall that I did a previous article on the New England Patriots’ star quarterback, based on his interview with Steve Croft on 60 Minutes. At one point, Brady was talking about how many hours he spends each day studying game films, which prompted Croft to rhetorically ask him, “So, everything is orchestrated?”

To which Brady replied, “Everything is orchestrated. You don’t just go out and wing it.” Thus, sports, speaking, show business — just about any profession you can think of — have at least one thing in common: Orchestration is a major key to greatness.

So, why don’t more people invest a great deal of time and effort in orchestration? Other than laziness, I think one of the biggest reasons is that they believe orchestration is somehow dishonest. Pure nonsense, of course. The person who orchestrates everything in advance simply cares enough about his work to strive for perfection. Orchestration is nothing more than practicing precisely what you’re going to do or say … and that’s a good thing.

The same thing applies to “reality” shows like The Apprentice. When big, bad Donald Trump says to Ms. Future Executive, “You’re fired!” and puts her on the verge of tears, hapless reality TV viewers want to believe that this corporate version of pro wrestling is real. They love sharing Ms. Future Executive’s “pain.”

And when the teary-eyed object of Trump’s ruthlessness appears on Oprah to tell the world how the other actors (er, job aspirants) stuck her in the back to get the job from The Donald, it’s enough to make a sober adult become physically ill.

But, then, unless you believe that Survivor and The Bachelor are real, I assume you already understand that The Apprentice is one big orchestration. Rest assured that every one of the dozen or so hairs on Trump’s head is put perfectly into place before the cameras begin to roll.

What’s good enough for DT is good enough for you and me. To parody the words of a now-deceased legal wizard who managed to set O. J. free through shameless diversionary tactics and a dose of grade-school poetry, “If you yearn to be great, you must orchestrate.”

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