What Speakers Can Learn From Gymnasts

On February 9, I attended the gymnastics Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas.  Defending Olympic all-around champion Paul Hamm of Waukesha, Wisconsin, was the winner.  This was the first time Hamm had competed in a full all-around event since the 2004 Olympics.  I’m always inspired by the performances of world-class athletes.  They show us what’s possible and encourage us to dream of what might be achievable in our own lives.  I always try to search for life-lessons that would apply to public speakers.

Here are ten lessons to be learned from the gymnasts that apply to speakers:

1.  Having a coach.  All gymnasts have a coach.  Even the champions at the top of their game have coaches.  Being a speaker is no different.  You need a place to practice and get quality feedback and coaching.  Top professional speakers use high-level coaches.  Many speakers get feedback from participation in Toastmasters.  A speaker going-it-alone will not likely achieve their potential.

2.  Warm up before you perform.  The gymnasts warmed up in each of the event areas taking a total of 90 minutes.  In addition, they spent time stretching before the formal 90-minute official warm-ups began.  As a speaker, it’s critical that you warm up your voice and body before taking the platform.  If you don’t warm up before you take the stage, you’ll warm up in front of the audience.

3.  Visualize your success.  Many of the gymnasts went through a mental visualization of their routine before approaching the mat.  You could see their mental gears turning and they appeared to be in a trance state.  As a speaker you can visualize your connection with the audience, getting the response to your humor, and the positive response at the end of your talk.  Visualize your success before it happens.  See it, hear it, feel it.

4.  Connect with the audience before you begin.  Before the gymnasts began a routine they made clear contact with the judges.  Eye contact and a raising-the-hand gesture were part of the routine before they started their exercise.  Starting an exercise while the judges had their heads in the score-sheet, while still judging the previous competitor, would be an obvious mistake.  Likewise as a speaker, before you begin speaking, pause a moment to connect with the audience.  Make eye contact.  Receive an acknowledgment from the audience that they’re ready to receive you. 

5.  Support from buddies.  Just as the gymnasts have workout buddies that cheer them on from the sidelines, speakers also can receive support from their speaking buddies.  Humor buddies can help you sharpen your humor and stories as you prepare your speech.  Friends can give you great support when you perform at a comedy club open mike night.  In a speech contest your club members will often be your buddy-system when you compete at an area contest or higher.  Cultivate a network of support buddies and never take them for granted.

6.  Audience energy.  The gymnasts receive energy from the audience.  The audience cheers them on before they start, provides them energy during their routine and gives them an ovation after a job well done.  A speaker receives energy from their audience.  As a speaker, you’re never presenting a monologue.  Every speech is a dialogue.  There is always a two-way conversation with energy flowing both directions.

7.  Ta Dah!  At the end of a great routine, the gymnasts almost always strike a victory pose and soak in the response of the audience.  As a speaker, don’t be in a rush to leave the speaking platform.  Give the audience a chance to express their appreciation with applause and other positive feedback.

8.  Being the best doesn’t mean being the best at everything.  Paul Hamm won the All-Around Championship.  In the six events, he was the best at two.  On one of the events he was ninth best.  As a speaker, you should strive to be as good as you can be in all areas.  But it’s normal that you may be tops in some areas and not others.  You may be terrific with eye contact, but less accomplished in physical energy and gestures.  You may be great in humor but not quite as good as a story teller.  Know your strengths and weaknesses.  And work on keeping strong skills in all areas.  But remember that you can be one of the best speakers without being the best at everything.  Professionalism doesn’t require perfection.

9.  There is always room for growth.  On rare occasions, a top gymnast may receive a perfect score.  I don’t know if a perfect score has ever been attained on all events in a competition.  Probably not.  There is always room for growth.  As a speaker, if you complete your most awesome speech you’ve ever given or win a high-level contest, just think of it as a new platform for jumping toward your next, even greater challenge.

10.  The value of competition.  The gymnasts are inspired and challenged by entering competitions.  It’s not the same as practicing in the home-town gym.  They’re pushed to be their best.  Toastmaster speech contests are also a great challenge to reach new levels of excellence.  A contest is less about winning than it is about growth.