For the majority of my life, I’ve been someone who overthinks and over-prepares.
In my first sales job, we had a presentation contest each spring where the entire sales team would compete for the best 10-minute pitch.
That first year, when springtime came around, I started practicing my presentation incessantly. I researched it. Outlined it. Rehearsed it all day on Saturday until my brain shut down.
I can’t tell you how many lonely spring Saturdays I spent at the office rehearsing my presentation while my colleagues put back IPAs at Harpoonfest.
But, in those days, I would tell myself that my preparation would result in a superior presentation. While everyone else took it easy and waited until the last week to prepare, I’d master every line.
What I didn’t realize then, was that there was a danger in over-preparing.
As the contest edged closer that year, my presentation became an obsession. Every morning before work I made small tweaks to my script. I replaced lackluster adjectives with convincing ones. I shuffled the order of my slides to better reflect my story. And then I’d have to rehearse it all over again until it was memorized.
All of this reorganizing added complexity to my preparation process. As the presentation neared, and I rehearsed in front of some colleagues, I found myself forgetting lines and getting flustered. Despite all my weeks of preparation, it seemed I was no more ready than my friends who had put in less than half the time.
On the morning of my presentation, I felt more nervous than confident. What if I forgot a line? What if my story doesn’t make sense? Negative thoughts swirled through my head as the hours ticked down.
In the presentation room that afternoon, sweat trickled down my back as I dove into my script. But the perfectly curated lines were hard to remember with all these intimidating eyes staring at me.
About three minutes into the presentation I accidentally skipped a line and it threw me off.
I gulped nervously, looked back at my slides, and then just jumped forward to a new line. What I was saying made no sense now. I could tell from the perplexed look on the judges faces that they were lost.
For the next seven minutes, I stammered through the presentation as my shot at winning the contest slowly slipped away. I walked out of the room that day feeling defeated and confused. How could all that preparation be for nothing?
It wasn’t until years later that I started to understand what I did wrong in that presentation contest. The realization came to me after reading a story about an old musician who was instructing a student.
The student had yet to master the guitar and sought the old musician’s advice. After hearing the student play, the old musician spoke up:
“If you tighten the string too much, it will snap, and if you leave it too slack, it won’t play.”
The student realized then that he had to tune his guitar just right in order to create beautiful music. Having it tuned too tightly or loosely would ruin his performance.
Much like the young musician, I too had to find a way to tune the strings on my guitar just right. In that presentation contest years ago, my strings were so tight that they snapped and ruined my pitch.
Moving forward, I would have to find a balance so that I could go into any big situation feeling confident and relaxed. In this way, I could thrive in presentations to come.
So now when I begin to prepare for any big moment in the spotlight, rather than focus on getting everything “perfect,” I focus on finding that balance between being too tight and too loose.
It’s in that middle ground that beautiful music and incredible performances are created.