Preparation vs Procrastination

Seth Godin is the author of several books about “marketing, the spread of ideas and managing both customers and employees with respect”. They are bestsellers. His blog is one of my favourites and I highly recommend it.

In this blog post from 6 September 2010, Seth raises a question that all public speakers face at one time or another. In fact, it’s a question that most public speakers will ask themselves many times over a speaking career: Am I ready?

It’s a fair question. Being prepared is one of the most important things that a speaker can do. It helps a presentation run smoothly and it shows respect for the audience.

But when does preparation become over preparation or worse, procrastination? There is no one answer, of course. Each preparation is different. But there is a line, and as speakers, we should be wary of crossing it.

Preparation will not guarantee perfection. But that’s OK. It is through our mistakes (or hitches) that we learn and improve. And when it comes to public speaking, there is always room for improvement.

Preparation is important. But there comes a point when we have to stand and deliver.


Rehearsing is for Cowards

by Seth Godin

Jackson Browne gave us that advice. He would rather have you explore.

Exploring helps you figure out what you can do the next time you present or perform or interact. Rehearsing, on the hand, means figuring out exactly what you’re going to do so you can protect against the downside, the unpredictable and the embarrassing.

I’m not dismissing study, learning, experimenting or getting great at what you do. In fact, I’m arguing in favor of this sort of hard work. No, I’m talking about the repetition of doing it before you do it, again and again. Just drilling it in so you can regurgitate later. Better, I think, as they say, “…let’s do it live.”

A well-rehearsed performance will go without a hitch. An explorer seeks the hitches, because hitches are the fissures and chasms that help us leap forward.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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11 Responses to Preparation vs Procrastination

  1. John,

    Thanks for pointing me to Nick’s blog and discussion. I weighed in there too!

    I love your last sentence… “Prepare properly and then do it, and in the doing, be prepared to learn more.” That I can definitely sign up for!!


  2. Hi John,

    I have to respectfully disagree somewhat with Seth, with whom I’m usually in complete agreement. I think his advice to be an explorer and seek the hitches is fine IF [and it’s a big if] you already have a good foundation of presentation skills and can adequately think on your feet and react appropriately in the moment. But if you can’t, if you’re an inexperienced or extremely nervous presenter, then that approach is essentially “practicing” on the audience. Yes, you may learn from your mistakes and eventually improve, but at the cost of providing the audience with a sub-par experience.

    I think we owe it to our audiences to be the best we can possibly be when they give us their time to hear our message.


    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for the thoughtful message. In fact, I had the same exchange with other speakers in Nick Morgan’s “Public Words”. You might find it interesting to have a look and comment over there too:

      As I said in that forum, what I took away from Seth’s post is that there comes a time when the preparation has to stop and we must deliver. We can prepare and rehearse all we want – and preparation is important, to be sure – but until we get up and do it, we will never truly know what it is like. How many of us learned to ride a bike from a manual?

      Don’t get me wrong, I am a staunch advocate for the importance of thorough preparation. It is essential for the speaker and respectful for the audience. (As I tell my students, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.) However, I took a somewhat different message away from Seth’s post: Prepare properly and then do it, and in the doing, be prepared to learn more.



  3. Tia says:

    I like the word exploring. In the past, I rehearsed a lot so that I could not enjoy my speech, but lately I only rehearse my opening and closing and explore the body of speech, and I can enjoy myself, and yes, there is always a room for improvement. It works for weekly meetings, but I am very nervous about contests that I practice a lot and only regurgitate the speech on the stage. May I know how you prepare your speech, John? 🙂

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Tia,

      Thanks for the comment. “Exploring” is a great word because as speakers we are constantly exploring for different and better ways to connect with our audiences. In so doing, we are also exploring ourselves.

      As for my preparation, it depends. For presentations, or for the courses that I teach on public speaking, I have a definite structure – one which is readily available if I happen to be using a slide show – but I never memorize it. A presentation needs to remain flexible as there is often a degree of audience participation (questions, exercises, etc.) that calls for flexibility. A presentation should, in many ways, be like a conversation. It should not be a rigid recitation of material.

      A speech (particularly one in a contest) is a bit different. Though there is still interaction with the audience, there are no questions or exercises or comments (though there can be laughter, tears, even boos!). But it is much more a case of the speaker delivering a message. I always write my speeches out word for word, especially for speech contests where there are strict time limits. I think it important to do so, so that you can really craft the speech and get as much out of the time as possible. Having said that, I don’t “memorize” the speech word for word and it never comes out the same way twice. I do memorize openings and closings and key sentences in between. For the rest, I have the flow of the speech in my head and use it to guide me from point to point.

      I hope that some of this is helpful.



  4. Bertrand Völckers says:

    To compare it with cycling: Sometimes you need races to get better or to prepare for the real event; just training will not give you the needed intensity. In my view, you can consider Toastmasters meetings as rehearsal where you train for the real event. Some members of the club lose interest because rehearsal at home is not really fun, so you might end up with boring rehearsing all the time. Hope you get the idea, while I am writing this, I am exploring and not rehearsing or reviewing.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Bertrand. As an avid cyclist, I love the analogy! And I agree that TM is a great way to get in some training before the real event.

  5. Rich Hopkins says:

    I think you mean Speak & Deliver, John 😉

  6. Zaldy Co says:

    In times when people get busier and busier, there is less and less time to prepare. It does not mean one should not prepare at all. I have to be at least half-prepared before I decide to deliver a speech. I may not deliver it as well as having fully prepared, but at least I get to deliver the speech and move on to my next speech. I get to speed up in my development as a speaker.

    • John Zimmer says:

      It is ironic that one of the possible “benefits” of our busy schedules is that we are forced to get up on stage and deliver that speech, often with less preparation than we would have liked. I am certainly not advocating for a hectic lifestyle, but one has to look for that silver lining in every cloud.

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