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It’s Got to Be Perfect – or Does It?

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The use of the word ‘perfect’ in regards to public speaking is a quick way to halt improvement. Most of our readers have had that one speech that went off without a hitch, but to deem it completely flawless can lead to complacency. In this article, Vince writes about where the idea of perfection is acceptable – and where it’s not.  

Whenever I hear the word ‘perfect’ in the context of public speaking, I cringe.

There are millions of people walking around this planet hypnotized by the word ‘perfect’. The word isn’t the enemy, merely their misunderstanding of it. But how do you educate a planet and relieve the pain that so many people experience on a daily basis?


Let’s start with a distinction

If you’re doing a math test, 1+1 = 2, 2+1 = 3, 5+5 = 10 and you score 100/100 then it’s a perfect score. Here we’re working with objective criteria. So perfection exists in this and similar objective aspects; but it cannot exist in the realm of public speaking because we’re dealing with Subjective criteria. Subjective means that we’re working with likes, dislikes, preferences and biases.

When we’re talking about subjective criteria in public speaking; like personality, creativity, imagination, humor, presence, energy, spontaneity, drive, message, structure, complexity, timing, voice tone, posture, body language, eye contact, background, education etc, we suddenly see the absurdity of the word ‘perfect’.

For those of us who have judged hundreds of speech contests, it also explains why judges take forever to agree on a winner. We’re using objective criteria (if you have score cards) but individuals apply those objective criteria, subjectively.


We all see life through a different lens

Effectively, we’re comparing apples against oranges which is why some judging results are simply bananas. Wittgenstein said,

‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world.’

Your understanding of language and its implications is incredibly powerful. What does anyone actually mean by ‘perfect’?

That’s why I object to the word perfect in public speaking. Marketers may tell us that we need the perfect house, perfect partner, perfect children, perfect car, perfect holiday, to be the perfect mother or father; and well, if you’re not ‘perfect’, clearly there’s something wrong with you. You’re inadequate, you’re a failure, you’re a loser!


Who is a perfectionist?

Over many years, I have asked my fear of public speaking classes the question, ‘Who is a perfectionist?’, and lots of hands go up.

This explains why so many people hide from public speaking. As human beings we crave certainty and enjoy pleasure; and we avoid pain, either physical or psychological, at all costs. Over the years, we’ve invested a lot in our education and our achievements and we don’t want to be criticized. We call it ‘public’ speaking for a reason and we often feel that we’re putting our neck on the line.

Because people are unaware of the semantic mind trap ‘perfect’ offers, they walk around hypnotized and anxious that they’re not good enough and there’s something wrong with them. They’re afraid of being criticized and because they’re not ‘perfect’ they’re going to get found out.

Aristotle said,

‘If you’re afraid of criticism – say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’


Get out of the mindtrap

The problem with mindtraps is that you need to know that you’re in one before you can think yourself out of it. Trying to achieve the impossible dream is, after all, impossible.

So whenever the word ‘perfection’ raises its ugly head, I draw this distinction between the objective and subjective criteria. It provides clarity and at last a little comfort for those who have been under the power of its spell.

Mark Twain said that, ‘95% of people walk around in the storm of their thoughts’ and in my experience of working with thousands of speakers, he was correct.

Public speaking is both a psychological and a physiological event. You have to get those thoughts lined up and deliver them coherently. Errant thinking stands in the way. It’s the role of philosophers and physicists to help us establish the truth of how the world works. Once we achieve that greater understanding we need to make it work for us. Otherwise we’re getting in our own way which is another past time of the novice and nervous speaker.

In his song ‘All of me’ the singer/songwriter John Legend sings about ‘perfect imperfections’ and I’m sure he doesn’t mention what they are for a reason. This is a beautiful and artistic contradiction, stretching artistic license to the full.

For those marketers who sell the ‘perfect’ holiday and the opportunity to find the ‘perfect’ partner, please be aware that you are raising people’s expectations and offering them the hope of a more fulfilling life experience. Take account of all those people who trusted in you, knowing that you can’t deliver their impossible dream.

I hope you see the word perfection for what it is and I hope this short article has brought you greater clarity. The personality is an endless development process. Aim to be the best that you can be and share the best of what you have and play to your subjective strengths. The world will embrace you for it.

Vincent Stevenson
Vince Stevenson is The Fear Doctor. He is a well known speaker/trainer and has won a number of awards for leadership, education and development. As the Education Director at the College of Public Speaking, he is one of the UK's leading trainers in the fear of public speaking.
Vincent Stevenson
Vincent Stevenson

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Oliver Hauss

    1st March 2017 at 1:23 pm

    One key aspect that a lot of people tend to forget – the audience has no clue about “your plan”. So if you accidentally skipped a point out of excitement, they did not know that there was something you wanted to say. If it is some information an audience member wants, they may still ask in the Q&A. As long as it’s not the keystone to your entire point, chances are no one will realise you meant to add another sentence or two… To you, it might seem you have blundered your way through a “perfectly planned” presentation – the audience might not miss a thing.

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