Perfectionism and Public Speaking

By Nick Morgan

Is it good to be a perfectionist? Perfectionists would say yes, of course; it leads to better results in work and life.

The psychologists say it leads to misery, and a higher risk of suicide. A specialist in the field, Professor Gordon Flett of York University, has written a book on the subject, and a recent article in Review of General Psychology. The titles are revealing: Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment. And the recent article: The Destructiveness of Perfectionism Revisited: Implications for the Assessment of Suicide Risk and the Prevention of Suicide.

Those titles at least let you know how Gordon feels about the personality trait.

Of course he’s right. As someone who has struggled with perfectionist tendencies all his life, I know what it means to endlessly replay scenes in my head of things I have done that could have – should have – gone better.

Perfectionism is especially troublesome for public speakers. Speakers have good days and bad days like everyone else; they just have them in front of a crowd. So if we weren’t already perfectionists before we started speaking, we might well become more so. Who wants to make mistakes publicly?

The other day, in a speech, I was talking about emotion and meetings – showing up with a clear, focused emotion as a way of increasing your impact and charisma in the meeting. It’s the subject of one of the chapters in my new book, Power Cues. I got a question from the audience: “You’ve given the examples of excitement, or anger, as possible emotions to focus on before a speech. It strikes me that it’s hard to think of many others. That seems a bit narrow in range. Can you suggest a few more appropriate emotions?”

In retrospect, I could have laughed it off, or asked the audience for suggestions, or even teased the questioner for having such a limited emotional palette. Instead, I stood there, rooted to the spot, unable to think up any other emotions. (Fear or empty-headedness didn’t seem like worthwhile suggestions.)

It’s one of those moments that perfectly captures the problem with being a perfectionist public speaker. You feel that it’s your job to be able to answer all the questions the audience has, perfectly. When you can’t – because you’re human – you beat yourself up afterward for being imperfect. Forever, or at least until a fresh failure drives the previous one out of your head.

I love Professor Flett’s list of “ten signs your a perfectionist,” below. I check most of them off, including number ten, which was really hard to leave in the blog post as is, in order for you to get the joke.

1. You can’t stop thinking about a mistake you made.

2. You are intensely competitive and can’t stand doing worse than others.

3. You either want to do something just right or not at all.

4. You demand perfection from other people.

5. You won’t ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness.

6. You will persist at a task long after other people have quit.

7. You are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong.

8. You are highly aware of other people’s demands and expectations.

9. You are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people.

10.You noticed the error in the title of this list.

Perfectionism freezes you up, afraid to risk making mistakes. But public speaking is one big risk, and it’s never perfect. There is always something to go wrong, whether it’s the sound, or the lights, or the slides, or the speaker, or the talk – there are simply too many human moving parts for the whole thing to go perfectly.

Of course you have to try to do your best. But once you put your speech out there, you have to be willing to let go of your perfectionism. For the sake of your mental health, as well as your performance.

Focus instead on the guts of your talk, your purpose, your passion — why you’re there.  Get that across, and damn the perfection.

Peter O’Toole, as incandescent an actor as ever trod the boards, holds the distinction for being the performer who has been nominated more times for an Academy Award than anyone else, without winning: eight. Imperfection, in a nutshell. Yet the world would be a much, much poorer place without his performance in Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, he was nominated for Lawrence, and no, he didn’t win. The others include: Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year, and Venus. By any standard, an extraordinary body of work. Yet not perfect.

In 2002, the Academy gave him one of those Lifetime Achievement awards – a consolation prize. I hope he wasn’t a perfectionist, because it would have galled him.

Just as for acting, in public speaking perfectionism is the enemy. Embrace instead the imperfect, the human, and the lively.  Embrace passion, not perfection.

About the Author:

Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and presentation skill coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication and the good and bad speakers of the day. For more information about his coaching services or books, visit

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