When I first decided to become a motivational speaker, I started going to Toastmasters meetings to practice public speaking. With my background in acting, both onscreen and onstage, I thought I had a pretty good shot at it. I loved being front of people, tapping into emotions, telling a moving story, seeing how my performance could change their perspective.
What I didn’t count on was how hard it was to write a speech. In Hollywood, someone always handed me a script. Now, I had to write my own speeches. And it did not come easily to me.
Sometimes it didn’t come to me at all. I slaved over those speeches. One night, I was trying to perfect a speech I had to give the next morning. It was a very personal and emotional story, so I wanted to get it right. I spent hours that night, staring at a blinking cursor on my screen, overwhelmed by everything I wanted to say. Around 4 a.m., I fell asleep, with only a jumbled mess of ideas written down.
The next day, I stood up to give the speech. I started off with a strong opening line, and then just blanked. The pause that followed went on a little too long, so it was clear the audience knew: She doesn’t know what to say.
For the next seven minutes, I rambled. I forgot key statistics. I started stories and didn’t conclude them. The audience looked at me with pity and discomfort, then relief when I finally sat down. It was any speaker’s worst nightmare.
After that, after sobbing to my sister about how terrible it was, I realized: I need to do something different. This isn’t working.
I remembered a trick I’d picked up while acting: I would record my rehearsal, and I’d start out by announcing “This is going to be the world’s worst performance – but that’s okay, I just want to hear it out loud.” And that freed me up to start.
There’d been a director on Guiding Light who used this method, too. He’d say “Let’s just read the words, let’s just get through, don’t try to make it good. Let this be the bad version.”
Sometimes, to get started, you have to lower your standards. In acting, that had taken away the fear and allowed me to just do it.
So I tried it with speech-writing.
“Okay, this is the worst, most horrible first draft of a speech you’ll ever hear!” I said into my recorder the next time I had to write a speech – even though nobody was ever going to hear this recording. Then I rambled about my topic for twenty minutes.
Giving myself permission to be bad unlocked the door to a whole world of good stuff. Yeah, there was a lot of crappy stuff in there too, but it was helpful, because I could listen to it and figure out what wasn’t working, how I could fix it. With this recording, I was able to outline and write my speech – using the good parts, and learning from the bad parts.
That became my go-to method for speech-writing. And it must have worked, because soon after The Worst Speech Of All Time, I won a speech contest. Later, I became President of the National Speakers Association – NYC.
Recently a friend told me about a similar concept called “Exuberant imperfection.” That phrase comes from Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month – a worldwide organization whose goal is to help people write a whole novel in one month, usually November. Baty writes, “The first law of exuberant imperfection is essentially this: The quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horribly crappy.”
Baty encourages people to embrace being exuberantly imperfect, in life as well as in any project they’re working on.
“Sing off-key in public. Try your hand at something you’ve long thought you might like but fear you’ll be bad at. You’ll probably feel uncomfortable and exposed at first, but you’ll also find that the world is a lot more fun when you approach it with an exuberant imperfection.
“By giving yourself the gift of imperfection,” he writes, “you tap into the realms of intuition and imagination that your hypercritical brain normally censors.”
It’s that intuition and imagination that becomes the stuff of creativity. You need that, in order to create anything. Yet we often shut it off, for fear of being bad at something.
For me, there’s nothing more discouraging than a blank white page. So I fill it with something, even if it’s not good. I pour out all my nonsense ideas, with no regard for how good they might be. And they become the clay from which I can shape the real product. Raw material, no matter how bad it is, is so much easier to work with than thin air.
Plus, it’s fun to let yourself be messy.
What about you? What’s an area in your life where the need to be perfect, or even just really good, creates a stumbling block?
What would happen if you let yourself be really bad at it, just for a few minutes?
If it’s too important to risk – say, a high-level business meeting – then I encourage you to loosen up in other areas. Like Baty said, sing off-key, do a silly dance, color outside the lines. Loosening your control in one part of life will send a message to your brain to think differently in other ways.
Go out as your exuberantly, wonderfully imperfect self, and shine.