A championship season just wrapped up for one of my favorite teams—The L.A. Lakers. No, not the actual Lakers of today. Rather the ’79–’80 “Showtime Lakers” at the heart of HBO’s new series Winning Time. This show tells the story of how Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, and others came together to create a basketball dynasty.
And while the real-life Magic and Kareem may not be fans of how their story unfolds in this scripted drama, I’ve been obsessed with it. So much so that I even read the source material, Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime. Whenever I binge a show, I sometimes attempt to justify it. Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy is about cooking and I like to cook. Plus, I have to feed my family so …
That said, connecting with basketball is a little tricky for me. You might not guess this based on my endless love of Star Trek and comic books, but I’m not what you’d call a natural athlete. You see, when I tried to play basketball in middle school I was called “Magic” too—but it was an ironic nickname. However, I quickly realized that coaching is like teaching. At the Tippie College of Business, I teach graduate students and professionals in our MBA program presentation skills. In this role, I often find myself coaching an “effective performance” out of someone.
There’s an obvious reason Kareem and former Lakers GM Jerry West may not like Winning Time. First, let me throw out a huge caveat: Winning Time never claims to be a documentary. In fact, there are regular disclaimers noting that people and events have been changed for dramatic impact.
With my own disclaimer out of the way, among the reasons the real Showtime Lakers may not enjoy the show is the simple fact that it’s hard to watch yourself. However, when it comes to public speaking, watching yourself is one of the best ways to learn from your past performances. Bringing it back to basketball and coaching, it’s sort of like watching your game tape.
“I Hate Watching Myself”
In teaching presentation and public speaking, I often have students give a presentation that’s recorded. I then assign the second component saying, “Now I’m going to make you do something painful. I’m going to make you watch yourself.” Again, this is one of the best ways to learn. But why is this seemingly simple task so painful?
While there are many reasons for this, some struggle with the very sound of their voice. “Ooooh. Is that what I sound like?” Yes, it is. But it sounds different to you and you alone for a good reason. When you hear your own voice, you’re hearing it through a layer of acoustical dampening that no one else listening to your voice has. That extra sound absorption comes from your head—literally your skull, skin, and everything else that makes up your noggin. Because of this, you’re actually listening to the sound of your voice through a barrier. That’s why, to you, your recorded voice sounds weird but it’s what everyone else outside of your head hears all the time.
You need to embrace this perspective when it comes to both vocal and nonverbal communication and study your own “game tape” like a professional athlete would. What do you notice? How do you sound? How do you carry yourself as a speaker? As you ask yourself these questions, it’s important to remember another key point of differentiation.
In watching your game tape, I was about to suggest you use a critical eye. However, the concept of a critical eye has been blown out of proportion in the age of reality cooking, fashion, and talent TV. Celebrity judges like Simon Cowell and Tim Gunn have made careers built on critical snark. This gets them audience but it’s not helpful to the idea of criticism at large.
You need to remember to be constructive with your self criticism. When we look in the mirror, we tend to be hyper critical, like our own internal Simon Cowell. When watching a recording of your public speaking, be constructive. If you’re too quiet, take note and speak up. If you’re fidgeting, take note and stop. But you’ll never know any of this without watching your game tape. As G.I. Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle.”
If you’re struggling with what to look for, consider the following:
- Volume—too quiet or just right?
- Pace—too fast, too slow, or just right?
- Tone—flat/monotone or a nice mix of highs and lows?
- Fluency—can you understand each and every word?
- Posture/stance—are you standing straight, shoulders back and down, with a nice, wide stance?
- Hand gestures—are you using them to reinforce key points? (Remember, when presenting online you need to bring these up so they’re onscreen.)
- Eye contact—is it consistent? (Again, with online presentations you have to look at the camera not the screen for “virtual eye contact.”)
- Movement—too much, too little, or just right?
These are the criteria I present to students in what I call a “Delivery Diagnostic”—I even have a little form they can fill out that makes this easy. (You can download a version of this Delivery Diagnostic here.) Think of it like your car’s inspection or your kid’s report card. What rating would you give yourself in each of these areas?
Beyond that, after watching your game tape, ask yourself what you did that was good and what you’d like to work on for next time. The first question is important not just in balancing self-criticism with self-affirmation but because what we do right is also a valid snapshot of your performance worth capturing. And, of course, the final question is important because it helps you focus and prioritize what you want to improve.
Watching your game tape is one of the best ways to learn how to get better at presenting and public speaking. It provides valuable perspective and can be a springboard for self-improvement. As Lakers coach Pat Riley once said, “Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” And that striving starts by being brave, watching your work, and learning.