It’s that time of year again. High school, college, and football teams have launched their seasons. Fans who waited long months to see their favorite teams in action will flock to stadiums and watch the action on television. Tailgaters will enjoy game day food, beverages, and fellowship.
Months from now when the season ends, one high school team will become its state’s champion, a college team will rank number one nationally, and a pro team will win the Super Bowl. Close behind them will be dozens of teams with outstanding ability and records.
What are the characteristics of great football teams, and how do they parallel the traits of great speakers? Consider these four common assets.
First, football champions go through incredibly thorough preparation. During the off season, athletes discipline themselves to stay in top physical condition. Once the season opens, a winning team will follow a strict exercise regimen, nutritional diet, and scrimmages under game conditions. Alabama’s legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant hired referees to observe his team’s practice, and throw penalty flags as they would do in a real game.
Then there’s the intense mental preparation as well. Every player must memorize complicated positions and plays. For example, Eagle Day—who quarterbacked the Ole Miss Rebels to consecutive Southeastern Conference Championships and to a Cotton Bowl victory in the 1950s—said he had to know 150 plays, and also learn how to change a play according to how the defense lined up. In his words, “The night before a big game, I might not get more than three hours of sleep, because I had to make sure I had mastered our playbook.” Something else he said is worth noting: “We won the game before we ever hit the field.”
Likewise, the very best speakers prepare thoroughly. Generally, they become experts on their topic by reading widely, taking continuing education courses, and signing up for Webinars that keep them updated on trends. Specifically, outstanding speakers interview leaders of the group they will address, outline their speech and reshape the content several times, select introductions and conclusions that will capture attention and leave a lasting srong impression, and use video rehearsals to sharpen their delivery. So just as Eagle Day said about football, top-level speakers have succeeded before they say their first word.
Second, winning football teams never take any game lightly. They give their best, regardless of the opponent’s record and status. Players know that almost every team will play one or two so-called “patsies” annually, where a win almost seems predetermined. However, “cream of the crop” teams take those games as seriously as they would a game with a major rival. For one thing, a letdown in attitude could allow the underdog to win. Additionally, playing hard keeps the team tuned up for bigger challenges to come.
Similarly, great speakers would never slip into thinking, “Next week’s speech to a small civic club is a shoo-in for me. No need to do anything special to get ready.” Instead, the leadership-level speaker ranks every audience as a group deserving her finest content and delivery. She realizes that thirty listeners who grant her a half hour to speak have given her fifteen hours of valuable professional time. She will respect that gift by contributing the same effort she would use in addressing 3,000 people.
Third, winning football teams move past their losses quickly. At any level, winning every game is unlikely. Upsets happen, key players are out with injuries, or what worked last week doesn’t click this week. Winners accept losses as part of the game. By watching films of the game, coaches and players analyze what went wrong and correct the problems before the next game.
That happens with high-achieving speakers, too. High school debaters forget or misstate key information. Corporate leaders make a weak presentation at the annual meeting. Even professional speakers experience off days, when they can’t generate rapport with the audience. In every case, speakers who eventually succeed don’t let poor performances shatter their confidence. They identify what caused the failures, and then overcome the mistakes in their next speech.
Fourth, title-winning football teams listen to their coach. Although a situation may seem to indicate a running play through the right side of the line would score the touchdown, the coach could call for a run to the left, a pass, or even a field goal. “Why would he send that play in?” the players might wonder. Still, they execute the play with the same commitment they’d have with their original selection. The coach has the experience, the objectivity, and a broader understanding of options and consequences.
In the same way, superb speakers follow their speech coach’s advice. You thought you spoke rapidly enough but the coach says you were dragging, or you felt your humor was tasteful but your coach rated your quip inappropriate. Here again, the coach sees you objectively, which is difficult for you to do yourself. Listen to the coach, and you will keep improving your speeches.
So you will become a champion speaker by preparing thoroughly, taking every speaking opportunity seriously, recovering from your losses, and responding constructively to your coach’s feedback.