How music’s 120/80 principle can improve your next speech

The author, a public speaker and professional pianist, explains the 120/80 principle of preparation, and why it’s impossible to practice too much.

Speech is a performance. There are many similarities between music performance and public speaking. Many elements of the musician’s mindset, attitude, and preparation for a performance apply to any presentation, any audience, and any circumstance.

In the music world, we use the 120/80 principle when preparing for a performance. That means if I prepare 120 percent of what I want to accomplish on the stage, the outcome will be about 80 percent of what was expected. During the live presentation, a number of things could happen:

  • Issues with the microphone
  • Forgetting a line
  • Unexpected audience response
  • Unexpected distraction(s)

Just ask any presenter or performer after the presentation whether they achieved 100 percent of their performance goal. Nearly all would say no; there is always room for improvement.

In terms of piano practice and performance, there is no such thing as “over-rehearsing.” There are thousands of ways to interpret and express each single phrase in music. Just imagine the millions of combinations and possibilities that can be demonstrated in a 10-minute presentation. It is impossible to over-rehearse millions of options.

Sometimes you have to put yourself in a physical location where no interruption will happen. Lock yourself in your room, or escape to the backyard, a garage, or even the bathroom. You must be creative in finding a place to rehearse. Then run through your presentation from beginning to end without stopping.

One day, I gained access to a conference room where I was to give a speech the following day. Even though I was allowed to rehearse on the day of the presentation, I wanted to see whether I could get in an additional practice session. It was a large amphitheater-style auditorium in a hospital. Luckily, the door was unlocked, and the facility manager graciously let me in. I gave my entire presentation for the facility manager.

However, most of the time, we are not that fortunate. We have no guarantee of securing a conference room whenever we want to rehearse. Then, we have to be creative.

Be sure to situate yourself in the center of the room where you are practicing. Next, imagine that the room you practice in is the size of the stage where you’ll be giving the presentation. This requires tremendous concentration, effort, and imagination. It must all be in your head—what the space looks like, how big the space is, and so on—but it works.

Being able to rehearse without stopping is the minimum requirement. Did you feel that you nailed it 100 percent? If so, congratulations. You should be proud of yourself for achieving it. However, you may need more work until you feel your presentation is 120 percent ready.

You should analyze which section needs to be refined; you may want to practice your presentation in smaller modules—going over the conclusion or just the middle section several times.

Have you noticed that a great musician’s CD sounds perfect no matter where you start listening, even from the middle of a phrase? This is not because of the professional editing. Rather, it is because of the result of delivering the music with 120 percent conviction.

You might want to make an audio or video recording of your entire practice session. Then listen to your recording from the middle of your speech, from the middle of a sentence. Did your delivery sound natural to you? If not, something may not be quite refined enough.

The 120/80 principle is the key to successful preparation for both musicians and public speakers.

Emiko Hori is the author of Let’s Play Speech!: How to Give a Better Speech Using the Principles of Musical Performance, available on Amazon. The original article is available on Emiko’s website.

Topics: PR

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