tennis ball and public speaking
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Performing Like an Athlete

Watch the Seams: Speaking Lessons from Tennis Stars

By Chris Graham

Do you get nervous before speaking in front of people? Before a court or tribunal, or making a presentation to clients or colleagues?

Even worse: Do you have trouble letting go of your performance after it’s over — even if you’ve done a good job?

Familiar Feelings

Maybe this sounds familiar. You prepare thoroughly for a presentation at a client’s office but are nervous on your way there. During the presentation, you do quite well — even though you forget one part of your opening and get momentarily flustered. After your talk, people respond warmly. But on the way back to your office, you spend the entire time berating yourself for missing that one part, even though you’re the only person who noticed.

No wonder you dislike speaking in front of people!

Get Your Head Out of the Game

It’s one thing to reflect on your performance and notice areas for improvement. It’s quite another to ruminate on an experience until you find things you don’t like. In fact, if you think about something long enough it’s inevitable that you’ll find flaws.

In the realm of speaking publicly, it can be hard to shut off your mind. For lawyers especially, so much of the work is cerebral, intellectual and mental.

So it’s useful to think about another context where performance is (vastly) improved the less you think about it: professional sports.

Lessons from Tennis: “Chess on the Run”

The example that I like is competitive tennis: The physical demands are obvious, but it also demands mental acuity and grit. The author David Foster Wallace described tennis as “chess on the run,” reflecting the deep strategy (and geometry, trigonometry and physics) required to manipulate an opposing player away from where you intend to hit the ball while resisting that players concurrent attempts to manipulate your position.

Tellingly, a narrative summary of the variables involved in just returning a professional tennis serve — which in men’s tennis can average over 100 mph, meaning the decision time available is about two (swift) eye blinks — would take up almost half the available word count for this piece. In lieu thereof, you can read Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer.

The mental labor quickly overwhelms, which is why professional players spend so much time practicing: transforming observation, consideration and response into reflex. This is easy to do in practice — hitting ball after ball into an empty court — but increases dramatically in competition:

It’s not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even … under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two. — David Foster Wallace, “How Tracey Austin Broke My Heart”

One way that professional tennis players keep their focus is called “watching the seams,” trying to see the tennis ball’s seams as it flies over the net. The effort required consumes any excess mental energy that might otherwise be used worrying about the pressure of the situation.

Watching the Seams

What works for professional tennis players can also work for lawyers arguing in court or presenting to clients. Your preparation isn’t the problem; it’s what your brain does once the preparation is complete. You need to find a way to occupy your mind before, during and after a presentation, so you stay focused on more productive matters.

One part is process: Schedule a fixed time for reviewing your performance, preferably with a colleague, and then force yourself to move on to new work.

On the way to and from a presentation, try listening to music. (This is why so many pro athletes get filmed wearing big headphones on their way into a stadium.)

And think about your equivalent to “watching the seams.” I try to feel the soles of my feet inside my shoes. The feeling’s always there, takes a great deal of low-level concentration to notice, and bears no relation to the content of whatever I’m saying.

Illustration ©

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Chris Graham Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder of TellPeople, a vehicle for teaching communication and storytelling to professionals. He is head of speaker coaching at TEDxToronto (Canada’s premiere TEDx event) and the Storyteller in Residence at Manifest Climate (a global climate technology firm). Twice-retired from law himself (first in New York, then in Toronto), through TellPeople, Chris makes lawyers better at talking to their clients, each other and everyone else. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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