Practice Doesn't Always Make Perfect

Not all practice is created equal.

That probably seems like a pretty strange statement coming from a speech teacher who regularly sings the praises of ample practice time as a pathway to success. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for you to stop practicing that big presentation you’ve got coming up. I just want you to understand muscle memory and how the quality of your practice affects the end result.

What is Muscle Memory?

It’s a term used by many athletes, muscle memory. But it turns out this might be a bit of a misnomer.  While muscles aren’t able to contain memories, it is possible for memories to be coded for movement. Or to put it another way, it’s possible for things that at one time require conscious thought to be practiced enough that they become unconscious. In a 2008 film called “Memory: Brain and Body”, experts explain that “When we learn a new skill, neurons all over the brain are activated as we struggle along. But as muscle memory takes over, the brain only activates the most essential neurons required, and soon, with more practice, an efficient pathway is formed.”

Think about how, when you hear your phone ring, you reach for it without even thinking about it. Or the way that learning to play the scales on the piano gets easier each time you practice. When we take part in these types of activities repetitively, we are “programming our brain, teaching it the necessary movements as we perform them.”

What Does that Mean for Speakers?

Quite frankly, it means there is a wrong way to practice. Let’s look at a few examples. If you are practicing your presentation while sitting down, your brain is creating a memory that doesn’t match what the actual environment will be. So unless you plan to sit down during your presentation (which we wouldn’t recommend), you should move during practice like you plan to during performance. Or if you are just reading through your presentation without using the vocal or facial expression you later plan to use, you aren’t really preparing yourself to do your best. A good general rule is to practice the way you want to perform.

In addition, research proves that quality is just as important as quantity when it comes to practice. When you rush through something and practice it incorrectly, you are creating a pathway that will need to be reformed correctly. So wait until your presentation is in the final stages to start practicing. Don’t practice what you don’t know, and slow down and take time to get it right. If you consistently mess up on a specific part of your presentation, don’t skip it, correct it. And then practice it over and over until you get it right.

Poor quality practice has the potential to create poor quality performance. Yes, you should practice a lot. But you should also practice well, giving time and effort to create pathways that will lead to performance success.

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