Today’s post covers 3 great reasons to practise your presentation, taken from neuro-scientific research. Practice is No. 5 in my C.R.I.S.P.E.R series of good speaking skills (these skills are: being Clear, Relevant, Insightful, Succinct, Practised, Energetic and Respectful – the overview article is here).
Reason No. 1: thicker neural pathways create precision and certainty
Every time you practise your presentation (indeed, anything: it could be your golf swing, or a piece of music), you’re creating a thicker, stronger neural pathway for the subject in your brain, as the bundles of fibres become more dense – they end up like the steel ropes on a suspension bridge, rather than dental floss. (These thickened pathways also explain why our ingrained habits are hard to break – but on the positive side, it’s great for learning new things.) You might already know this – but an aspect that was certainly new to me comes from psychologist David Weiner’s book Reality Check: What Your Mind Knows But Isn’t Telling You (Prometheus Books; 2005).
Weiner tells us that without practice, our brain will take random paths, 10’s or 100’s of them, to reach its destination; the brain isn’t like a computer, which takes a single line to get to its goal (though I do wonder if computers always toe that line – I think mine doesn’t always!). We think more like the branches of a tree, spreading outwards.
For example, if you think of an orange, your brain doesn’t follow the same pathway each time, but meanders a little getting to its destination – trotting down those 100’s of paths until it finds the image of an orange.
When we practice consistently, we reduce the number of possible pathways from 100’s, to about 8 – 10. Weiner tells us “The brain will know what to do, so you’ll become more precise”. And precision increases clarity – which has to be good when you’re speaking in public, both for you and your audience. This leads me to the 2nd reason why practice is so useful:
Reason No. 2: as you become more precise, you’ll feel more in control
Our brains love feeling in control, and practising will give you a much higher level of control and certainty. Let me give you an example from the wild world of psychological experimentation:
Steven Dworkin from the University of Nth Carolina, did a study with rats and drugs (Psychopharmacology 117; 1995). The rat could access cocaine directly by pressing a lever – and died through lack of food and sleep. Another rat was given the same dosage at the same time, but didn’t have control over the process – the result was that it died sooner.
The difference in result is the perception of control…and this idea has been shown in a lot of different studies, not just with rats but on humans too.
Apparently we lose prefrontal function when we feel out of control (that’s the higher cognitive thinking part), but so long as we have the perception that we’re in control, we keep our cognitive functions: in other words, we’re still able to think while we’re presenting to a group. Practice gives us that perception of control. And the 3rd and final reason to practise in today’s article? Serotonin.
Reason No.3: serotonin increases, and this suppresses our primitive , fearful ‘lizard’ brain
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which makes us feel more positive and puts us at ease.When we feel more confident, our serotonin increases, and our ancient primitive feelings of anxiety and fear decrease. And how do we become more confident? Yes, you’ve guessed it, through practising!
So, 3 great reasons to turn off the car radio and practise your presentation aloud! In my next article, I’ll detail specific areas of your presentation to focus on when you practise, and how to practise most effectively.