Why rehearse?

Why rehearse?

This post is question time with a difference. Rather than respond to a question someone emailed me, I want to write a public response to a question I got in person. You see, while I was preparing for a talk I am going to deliver today, I met one of my friends. I mentioned, in passing, that I had just finished one of the last rehearsals for today’s talk. Her response: “you are a native English speaker so why do you rehearse?”

This post is my proper answer.

To be fair, my original answer wasn’t too bad. It went a bit like this.

I rehearse for two main reasons. The first is that I see it as a way of respecting the people who will be listening. Since they have taken time out of their lives to come and hear me, the least I can do is put in the effort to make sure that they get something great.

The second reason is related to that. Whenever I do a talk, whether it will be heard by hundreds or a few people, I want to make sure it is the best that I can do. I want to know, when all is said and done, that I really did give my best. I rehearse precisely because I know I could get away without rehearsing. I rehearse (several times, usually) to make sure that I keep on improving.

Today, I want to add a third reason. I rehearse because I have a very mean and very sneaky enemy: cruising. Cruising doesn’t seem too bad, really and that’s the problem. We all have areas of life where we can switch to autopilot and do a good enough job – a job that others might even reckon is really good. Yet, it we are brutally honest, we know we can do more.

It’s like being such an accomplished translator that you can finish off two contracts with hardly a glance at the dictionary and a very minimum of furrowed brows. It’s like being such a good guitarist that you don’t need to look at chords and can strum away while planning your Christmas dinner in your head. It’s like being such a good writer that you can have template articles and even books on standby and don’t need to struggle any more.

On the face of it, cruising looks great. It is a mark that you have arrived. It means that, at worse, you will be performing your chosen task better than 90% of the population. You will look good and put minimum effort in. Congratulations, you have arrived.

If you compare yourself with others cruising is fine. However, if you do the only worthwhile comparison, cruising is awful. The only worthwhile comparison is the one between where you are now and where you could be. Run those numbers and cruising looks more like a stinking rut than the good life.

My point? I rehearse and work hard on every talk: even the short ones, so that I never cruise. The moment I cruise, I lose. Sure, the talk would be pretty good. Sure, the number of stumbled would be minimal but that’s not the point.

I still remember the last time I cruised. It was a fairly run of the mill sermon in my local church. Honestly, I thought it wasn’t bad. No one exactly broke down in tears or got miraculously healed but it was alright. Okay, I had a nagging feeling that I could have done better but I put that down to perfectionism. Until I got home.

“That wasn’t your best sermon,” said my wife, with her usual honesty. She was right. The person who knew me best saw right through me. She knew fine well what I was capable of and that was not it.

Those words still ring through my ears. And I am glad they do. I never ever want to be in a position where anyone who really knows me has to point out that I am cruising. I care too much about them. I care too much about my audience. I care too much about myself.

The only comparison I ever want to make is between how good a talk was and how good it could have been. In that exam, only 100% counts. And that’s why I rehearse. Perhaps it’s why you should be rehearsing too.

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About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
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