Photo courtesy of Mike Birdy/Stocksnap

The preteen girl at the park practiced serving the volleyball over and over again. Her younger sister on the other side of the net would catch the ball and roll it back to be served. The dad stood off to the side watching while talking on the phone.

I’m not an athlete and it’s been awhile since I’ve played volleyball. But even I knew the girl was serving incorrectly. Over and over and over.

So she was reinforcing a pattern of incorrect performance.

In this instance, practice was NOT making perfect; it was just making wrong.

 Part of the public speaking homework I assign to my adult students is watching online videos. Some of them are TED talks. ( Not all TED speakers are famous or professional speakers.  But most have an intriguing message to share.

I recently heard another presentation skills instructor say he felt it was wrong for aspiring speakers to watch/listen to TED talks. He felt that students will be demoralized by watching great speakers, and should instead watch terrible speakers. His belief was that the learners could say, “Hey, at least I’m not THAT bad,” and feel better about themselves.

This is another example of just making wrong.

By that guy’s standard, if I want to improve my singing, I should listen to someone singing off-key. If I want to be a better cook, I should use a one star recipe from a dubious website that carries the comment of Worst.Meal.Ever.

Here’s the secret to watching TED talks and other professional speakers to help you improve as a speaker:

Watch the videos and engage your critical thinking skills.  Ask yourself: What is it about speaker X that grabbed me from the first moment? How did speaker Y’s body language help reinforce her verbal message? How did speaker Z use humor to help me recall his key points?

What worked? What could have been done better? What annoyed me or detracted from the message? Is there some aspect I want to include in my personal toolbox of presentation skills?

To become a speaker that others want to listen to, you need to know HOW to make that happen before you can practice it.

If you speak in a monotone voice and practice in that same boring voice, you’re reinforcing a pattern of incorrect performance.

If you can’t put together a presentation that an audience can follow easily, speaking in a jumbled mess is what you’ll be reinforcing.

Family member Bill believes that Vince Lombardi was correct in advising practice makes perfect should be changed to PERFECT practice makes perfect.

And guess what? There’s even a TED playlist of nine talks devoted to “how to get better at what you care about.”

Be careful how you practice.