- Preparation 1 — What to Do When We’re Not Prepared
- Preparation 2 — Learning to Decline When We Can’t Deliver or Delay
- Preparation 3 — Delaying When We Can’t Decline or Deliver
- Preparation 4 — Preparation Defined
- Preparation 5 — What Being Unprepared Looks Like
- Preparation 6 — Being Over-Prepared
- Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly
- Preparation 8 — Thinking Forward vs Thinking Backward
- Preparation 9 — Our Beliefs about Our Preparation Are Part of Our Preparation
- Preparation 10 — There’s a Rhetoric to Preparation
- Preparation 11 — The Best Preparation Is Staying in Practice
- Preparation 12 — The Big Picture of Preparation
Table of Contents
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
There’s a trick to being slick
One thing most clients come to me looking to learn how to do — which historically has been and remains the ideal ‘thing’ knowledge and skill in Rhetoric allows us to do — is deliver or engage in anything they’d like with extemporaneous excellence.
What we’re after is the Rhetorical equivalent of being able to walk out onto a baseball field in any state we’re in, at any time of day as a game is already underway, pick up a bat, and without a second thought on our first attempt, hit the highest flying home run anyone’s ever seen. As everyone’s eyes are on the airborne ball, we begin prancing around the bases in front of the crowd as it’s still floating well above everyone’s head, soaking in the praise, adoration, respect, and rewards that naturally are our due like a plant taking in the sun. For having so thoroughly outperformed the competition, everyone on the opposing team is thereafter afraid we may go to bat again, forfeiting on the spot as the rest of the league follows suit. We win the World Series with a single swing, swung in a sleepy, seemingly unprepared state from the comfort of our pajamas, and all with no notice.
We want seemingly contradictory things when it comes to preparation. We want to not need to prepare, both because we do not want to, and because most of the Rhetorical situations we find ourselves in don’t permit much in the way of advanced preparation — either in and of themselves for seeming relatively unpredictable, or taken all together because there are too many of them in aggregate to prepare for any one of them individually. We also don’t want to sacrifice any excellence in our performance, if only because it would take with it the possibility of excellence in our results.
Whether in public speaking, negotiations, writing, editing, drawing, or sales, we’d all like to be able to simply begin, having everything come together wonderfully as we go, and create a positive impact in our lives as if it were impeccably planned to occur in precisely the way that it did, maximizing our results while minimizing our efforts. We see others on occasion that can seemingly do it, media we’re saturated in like film and television make it seem like everyone is well spoken and witty one-liners are as natural as breathing, and no matter how bad we feel we are at things Rhetorically inclined, we’ve likely had at least one success in something we’ve attempted in life that we felt went wonderfully despite having little to no preparation. To make matters worse, it seems as if the most Rhetorically savvy of us don’t need to prepare, often are not prepared, and despite that, are doing better than we can ever hope achieve. They show up, and great things seemingly just happen.
At our Rhetorical heights, we can and will do just that. There’s a misunderstanding, however, about what being able to do that entails, as well as what learning to do that looks like.
The Height of Preparation Is Practice
Tomorrow’s battle is won during today’s practice. — Japanese Proverb
When most people feel like they’re unprepared, more often than not they’re really feeling like they’re not Rhetorically fit for the situations they find themselves in, which is closer to the truth.
I use the analogy of being an athlete a lot when it comes to being good at Rhetoric, and that isn’t because I spent years as a personal trainer. We can prepare well and we can prepare poorly. And we can certainly ‘fake’ having prepared for something in particular when we get great enough at Rhetoric by performing as if we had. In many situations, we’re better off for it. But despite the infinite options that Rhetorical knowledge and skills open up to us in an era where our biggest concerns are affecting ourselves, we can’t fake having put in the time and effort that forges us into people that can deliver when the need arises.
Just as anyone stepping up to bat swings with the echo of all the attempt and toil and guidance they’ve put into swinging that bat and swinging it well countless times before, what comes out when we open our mouths or minds in any situation is most readily predicted from our consistently chosen actions prior. We certainly can hit a home run our first time holding a bat if the stars align, or the pitcher’s got a thing for us, but that isn’t something we can rely on, nor will it happen as consistently as we’d like. If we’re honest with ourselves, it isn’t something that happens very often, either — certainly not in the major leagues, either of baseball or Rhetoric.
Excellence is never an accident2.
More typically, when we haven’t put in the time and effort to get good at something, we’re also so ignorant of it that we’re unaware of how bad things just went, have no appreciation for what doing well would look like, and assume any hit is a homer3. In baseball, that’s easy enough for all to see, whether we’re amateurs, pros, or spectators. There are close calls at times, which is why we have referees and cameras all around, but with explicit boundaries, rules, and conditions, the feedback of our actions is usually as clear as the natural or artificial light shining out over the field. In Rhetoric, however, we often need a trained eye to spot the immediate effects of spitting hot air out in front of us, and wise council to gauge the grander results of affecting the thoughts, actions, and motivations of those around. When we get great at it, those results can be immediate, long lasting, and even profound.
No matter how we feel about any of them, all religions begin with someone opening their big mouth, and end when too few any longer feel the need to4. There’s always a Rhetor at their root, having succeeded on the human playing field we still share with them today where all others failed because they became really good at what they did. They weren’t born that way, however. They were born much like the rest of us. We all come out in different shapes, colors, and sizes, and are birthed into different environments, but getting great at Rhetoric is a learned thing, despite the divergent gifts we’re all born with that we can leverage along the way. None of us drop out of the womb acting with eloquence or Rhetorical grace — the second one of us does, rest assured it’ll make its way to the internet and we’ll all find out together. Extemporaneous excellence is something we develop through practice, coming about by no other way.
I wasn’t always this way, but I’m pretty damn good with Rhetoric now. As are those I work with in helping them develop their own Rhetoric. We do things every day that can rightly be called magical, sometimes being so great at it that we get complimented and cheered on by people whose success is at odds with our own. When we get really good with this, or even just okay with it, we can walk around winging things and we’ll usually ‘win’. But we can show up and win without specifically preparing for something in the same way professional athletes can show up and win — we live in a different way, and train ourselves to handle greater loads and circumstances than we can ever hope to face in the situations we find ourselves in daily. We’re still better off preparing, which in some cases may involve assessing the situation and deciding there’s really nothing worth doing to prepare for it in particular, but that’s only the result of having lived in such a way as to be so thoroughly prepared for most of what we will face that any additional work we could do isn’t going to compare to all the work we’ve already diligently done.
When we stay thoroughly in practice, we’ll often find our need to overtly prepare goes down dramatically because most situations we find ourselves in can’t hope to compare to the challenging ones we throw ourselves into for fun. We’re at our most prepared when there’s nothing more we can reasonably do to improve the results of our products and performances, which consistent, engaging, interesting, and challenging practice provides.
I suspect it’s easy to screw up any analogy made to physical exercise to build things like strength, muscle, and skill because of the dual delinquencies accompanying most instances we employ them in: Those making the analogies tend not know any more about exercise than a dumbbell, and those they’re speaking to tend not to know any better, either. Nor is anyone involved in these dangerous analogies aware that they’re taking part in a mutual exchange of volatile Bullshit5. Obesity isn’t on the rise because we all eat well, spending our free time out jogging and lifting weights with ample knowledge and appreciation of how the way we live our lives has an impact on the quality and duration of those lives.
With that in mind as I make my own analogy, physical exercise in the broadest sense is similar to Rhetoric at some very fundamental levels of why we do it, how we do it, and why it’s endlessly useful across a wide variety of pursuits as our primary preparation for any of them.
What Practice Looks Like In Practice
Rhetoric isn’t persuading people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t — though we can and do use Rhetoric to do that.
Aristotle’s classical analogy defending Rhetoric by comparing it as an art to boxing — in that Rhetoric itself isn’t bad but we can use it to do better or worse things — really doesn’t do it justice6. Rhetoric’s more like getting good at dealing with people, in the broadest possible sense it can be stated. That certainly applies to dealing with others in the more classical ways we’re used to thinking about such as speech, and after that writing, but it also applies to anything we can say, make, or do to affect one another — even if that ‘other’ is at times ourselves. We tend to wrap Rhetoric up neatly as dealing primarily with ‘words’ and ‘language’ in reference to those forms, but that’s only because they’re among what we primarily use to practice Rhetoric due to how efficient, accessible, and nearly inexhaustible written and spoken languages are. Even as new mediums sprout up, most of our Rhetorical work is still primarily conducted in those older mediums, even the making of newer mediums like film, comics, and video games — each of which are languages all their own, complete with their own Rhetorics. What Rhetoric is concerned with are the broader forces at work orchestrating among other things our thoughts, actions, and motivations. Any particular medium being used is a means in orchestrating those ends, just as hammers are to pounding nails. We’ve come up with many other means of building things since we first hit something into something else and saw it stick, but we still use relatively old techniques all the time because they work, newer techniques often being made possible by the older ones, which is true of Rhetoric as well.
Because of that, Rhetoric is recursive, applying to broader things like our ability to deliver during Rhetorical engagements, but also to the contexts we deliver in, as well as the things we do in service to delivering, like preparation. Physical training works much the same way, applying to both the practical moments we use our bodies — such as sports, self-defense, or just walking around touching things — as well as the moments we spend practicing to be better able to do just that — like making use of specifically intended exercise, nutrition, and rest.
This general framework is the source of our varying uses of the word practice. Among them are: preparing through repetition to acquire skills, applying a skill regularly in daily life, and something being ‘practical’ meaning it can be both fruitfully acquired and applied. That framework is also why all of our references to practice in that way share the same root.
Physical exercise allows us to grow, change, improve, and maintain our abilities, but we need do it in a particular way. We can’t flail our arms around until an invisible experience gauge fills up, at which point we are transformed into someone that looks like less of an idiot. If we’re an athlete, we also aren’t reminded at the last minute that we have a game to play the next day, then cram in some presses, laps, or swings until the early morning hours the night before. Nor should we, as that’s only going to leave us tired and sore when we head out to play. Practice is applied in the moment, but our ability to perform is built in preparation for that moment. The work of that needs to be done early, prior, consistently, and lived, not considered as an afterthought intended to make up for misspent time.
Many of us are nurtured to think that’s what preparation and practice are because we can get by with that in standardized schooling. When what we’re called upon to do ranges from identifying familiar options on multiple choice tests to regurgitating some key terms we memorized for the moment — only to forget later on, never having learned their significance, nor having cared to — that sort of preparatory practice does work at times. Once we leave the artificial environment facilitating it, however, it becomes progressively less useful because we’re no longer evaluated on our ability to pretend to be people that are more knowledgeable and experienced than we are. What we’re asked to do ‘in the wild’ is perform. We won’t always know what we’re to do, why, when, how, or with who, but we’re tasked with getting results just the same. Our options aren’t laid out from us to choose from unless we take the time to do that ourselves. There are no do-overs, retakes, or extra credit to make up for failing, and if we’re ill prepared enough, we may not even know whether or not we have failed because there isn’t a schoolmaster present to inform us about how we did with a big red pen staining otherwise beautiful paper.
Preparation for real world Rhetorical tasks doesn’t consist of last minute cramming, which isn’t helpful, but actively detrimental to our ability to perform and get results — like marathon runners trying to make up for a lazy summer by tying ourselves to treadmills the day before a race.
Practice doesn’t necessarily need to be the focus of our life, but it certainly needs to be among our competing priorities if we have any hope of excelling in any of our pursuits. Most of us that are successful in what we do make those activities a top priority in our lives because it’s easier to excel in them that way, and because we can only ever really have one priority at any one time. The relatively recent pluralizing of the word ‘priority’ is ample evidence of the diluting of what it denotes as we collectively fail to make the hard choices to commit to necessarily fewer things if we’re to be great at any of them.
Once we see the value of practice, and see it more broadly as a preparatory effort for everything we do, we need accept that staying in practice involves necessarily limiting what we practice to the vital few things we’ll most benefit from.
In practice, practice also isn’t as simple as going through the motions of what we’re seeking to do, at least if we’re interesting in growing enough to do them well. If it were that easy and straight forward, all any of us would ever have to do is simply ‘do’ what we’re trying to get better at a lot and we’d be great at it. Basketball players would play basketball all day and all night, dribbling a ball as they ate their meals and from the moment they could stand. Bodybuilders would always have weight-in-hand to curl at a moment’s notice during casual conversation. Firefighters would sleep in their gear. Artists would tie their hands to a pencil and let a machine man it as they slept to increase their mileage. And speakers would simply not stop talking until their voice had the bass of James Earl Jones, the charisma of Steve Jobs, the conviction of Martin Luther King, and the wit of Will Rogers. Whoever clocked in the most hours in any pursuit would win. Anyone that lost or performed poorly would do so because they were lazy. Life would be very easy and straightforward.
Though I’m sure we’ve all met some people that have tried that and seemingly weren’t as bad as they were when they began, I hope it’s clear that the people we seek to emulate at the height of their athletic, professional, and creative abilities don’t do that. In rare instances as a novice maybe, but certainly not at their best, or on the road that lead them there. That’s not how good practice works. Whether or not it ever could work, when we look around, we don’t find those that win working that way. Our knowledge and skill can’t grow to overcome the challenges we face by having those very same challenges be all that we face, and in the same way we face them. Growth comes from stretching ourselves in novel avenues, periodizing according to our priorities, and getting expert guidance, which simply doing what we’re trying to improve in will rarely — if ever — provide the framework for.
We go to the field to play, but we go to the gym to get better. And to be at our best, we will always need a trainer, it not being enough to wing it if the only wing we’re flapping is our own.
Practice Makes Professionals
If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all… If you knew how much work went into it, you would not call it genius. — Michelangelo
There’s certainly something to be said for having a ‘knack’ for something as well, and the role of that in Rhetoric goes back to coining the term, but we don’t see many ten foot basketball players or swimmers born with gills — either in sports, or figuratively in other realms like business. Getting to the top of our field for any of us — be it a grassy or Rhetorical pasture — requires taking the investments we make in ourselves startlingly seriously when viewed by the casual observer. Others that have yet to attempt realizing their potential are usually astonished by what all we’ve put into it. And those that don’t would be more successful if only they did, being rare enough that we’re unlikely to ever meet any. The barrier to seek and hire help being hurdled over is usually the beginning of our becoming great, hurling us to new heights we hadn’t known existed when we took our first steps.
We all start somewhere different, with innate abilities that can help or hinder us, but those of us that are willing to work on ourselves are the ones we usually look to and see as having prepared for anything life can throw at them by spending a good portion of their lives preparing to handle and hurl far heavier things in ways that aren’t always straightforward for beginners to grasp in any reasonable amount of time — provided they’re training on their own, guided only by the shadows of their own ignorance and inexperience.
Keeping in practice with Rhetoric is a lot like keeping in practice in anything else — athletic or not — only much more fundamental in its usefulness and ubiquity. The better part of Rhetoric is learning to deal with human nature — both our own and that of everyone around us — so we necessarily deal with a broad range of things because that’s what dealing with people requires. The knowledge and skills we learn also have a much wider range of application than all others, because we never really ‘leave’ the Rhetorical playing field. Whether we’re writing, speaking, drawing, or any other form of thinking7, we’re always playing with Rhetoric. In addition to making it more vital to learn, this also makes it easier to maintain once we develop it, unlike our strength and muscle rapidly reverting to fleshy goo for lack of any opportunities to use and continue developing them.
In contrast to that, the things we need to practice in Rhetoric are also much more specific to their application than most pursuits of a physical nature. As we’ve been over, speaking isn’t writing and vice versa8, each being their own ‘sport’ in continuation of this analogy. They’re further distinguished from sports, however, in that a thorough knowledge of what’s being made and experienced in a medium is needed to do anything effective in it, and by the discourse surrounding it affecting how any of us will be affected in practice. But as with what we’re used to considering sports, learning the Rhetoric of any one medium or situation does make it far easier to learn the rest of them, including understanding the discourses surrounding them and how they intertwine with our products and performances. Learning the Rhetoric of more than one medium builds within us a foundation that we can always in part apply to other mediums, much like developing ourselves in one sport always has ‘us’ and our ability to pursue disciplined training and practice of a sport as the common carry over to the rest of them, along with the skills and abilities we’ve built up throughout doing that to the extent we did it well. Many athletes do well in multiple sports because they have learned how to ‘be an athlete’ in that way, much like we find it easier to excel in any instance of Rhetoric when we come to terms with the overarching practices of how we develop and apply Rhetoric through particular mediums.
Again like sports, we also bring with us the best practices we’ve learned before, many of which will always center on making the most productive use of ourselves, as well as discerning and dealing with the abilities of other people in relation to our own. We too have the added ability of being better able to distinguish how best to employ different mediums because we know more intimately how they differ from each other. We also retain the knowledge and skills of how to apply ourselves to learn, grow, and understand Rhetorical things better for having done so with thematically similar things before — much like learning a language helps teach us how to learn languages, and how best to utilize them towards desired ends.
Saying something has a ‘Rhetoric’ to it in a specific sense is in part acknowledging that there is an existing body of work affecting anything we can say, think, or do in a field, as well as referring to there being an evolving set of best practices we can follow towards fulfilling any intentions we have in endeavors. This will always be somewhat dynamic because everyone practicing in a field is open to both affect and be affected by beliefs and perceptions about these practices, as well as the discourses surrounding them in similar and different fields. If I wrote that right, that should sound like a really odd series of sentences to many people, but understanding it is core to understanding how Rhetoric really works.
For now, it’s enough to appreciate that what works in Rhetoric is always changing and growing, our personal and public knowledge and beliefs about any of that being as much a part of it as anything else. Nothing ever stands still, so we’re always in part making it up as we go along, like spiders spinning webs between webs in a world made of webbing, being made of silk ourselves as we all shake and move along together, either forging the paths ahead, or being left to follow those laid down before us by others, often getting understandably tangled and stuck on our journey towards things that themselves are usually wrapped up in the same silky, human mess.
We Take up Rhetoric like a Sport
Funny thing. The more I practice, the luckier I get. — American Proverb9
A Rhetor is an athlete whose sport is human nature, whose playing field is life, whose scoreboard is affecting the thoughts, actions, and motivations of all around — including themselves — whose means are informing, persuading, and motivating them, and whose methods are any mediums they can manage.
The analogy to sports here becomes complicated, however, because of the depth and breadth of the Rhetorical things we do. Preparing and practicing in Rhetoric are not only like keeping in practice for a sport, but keeping in practice for a great deal of sports, the sum total of which make up a good deal of our collective conduct and consciousness. Triathlon competitors begin looking like they have it easy compared to the number of instances we’re called upon to apply Rhetoric in — which by comparison, they do. One of the reasons getting into Rhetoric can be difficult without a guide is because of how intangible it is compared to pursuits that require a similar amount of discipline and commitment, and it being widely applicable enough that we’re hard pressed to notice Rhetoric is a thing unless someone either clues us in on it, or we’ve wasted a great deal of time realizing it ourselves that could have been spent getting better at it. No matter our level, we still do better with a coach, whether we’re an athletic or Rhetorical competitor. Anyone interested in success has also likely had an inkling that ‘there’s something gone on’ tying a whole bunch of vital human activities together. With Rhetoric, however, we aren’t usually equipped to know what to do, where to begin, or why — at least without help.
This puts Rhetoric into an unfortunate position of being a very difficult game that many of us don’t realize we’re all playing, and having our ability to perform in it affecting our lives regardless of how ignorant we are of it.
I did not know what Rhetoric was growing up. I certainly felt there were some common elements to how things affect us, how communication works, informing one another, networking, persuasion, politics, art, theory, and other things that constitute what Rhetoric is in practice and is used to do, as well as getting good at them because I was raised in a gym and other pursuits devoted to developing myself in all manner of capacities, but I would not have been able to put any of it together without mentors and guidance — at least not in any reasonable amount of time. I’ve reinvented the wheel a great deal of times to my now learned embarrassment, and though I’m pretty far along today, I’d have been much further if I’d been saved from spinning my wheels on more than one well-meaning but poorly intentioned occasion.
The nature of preparation for all things Rhetorical is one such occasion, and a particularly impactful one considering it’s what rightly produces our performances10. Another is that our performances at their best are usually improvised from a solid foundation that takes time to build, is accessible to everyone, and isn’t hard to maintain11.
Footnotes, References, and Citations
- Preparation 10 — There’s a Rhetoric to Preparation | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric ↩
- Since I’m in a position to know, and for the sake of both public accuracy and interest: This is part of a quote often attributed to Aristotle, but is really a line passed around in self-help literature that became attributed to him as everyone began using it and taking the original citation as a definitive and convenient source. There is no surviving work by Aristotle that this appears in, so if he did say it, he said it telepathically to twentieth century self-help authors as they began using it en mass, and conveniently in-line with their twentieth century values — which he did not share. Accordingly, it also does not in any way accurately summarize his views on excellence, destiny, or causality, or at least those views of his which have survived and are what we can rightly called ‘his’. No, it was not in the Nicomachean Ethics, either. It’s still a wonderful quote in its own right, however, the fuller form usually appearing as variations of: “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” — Misattributed Self-Help Mantra ↩
- In sum the Dunning–Kruger Effect as it’s come to be called is the dichotomy of our tending to be either so ignorant and unskilled in some area that we are unaware of what all we’re ignorant of and assume our own superiority despite how bad we really are, or we are so knowledgeable and skilled in something that we’re overcome with the finitude of our knowledge and ability and underestimate ourselves while over estimating others. Developed from: Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“. (1999 Article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34) ↩
- What is Rhetoric? Part 2 — It’s Religion | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric ↩
- I use this term here with special meaning, as I’ve written about elsewhere, and will have that up as part of the What is Rhetoric? Series adapted from my next book when I can. ↩
- For an accessible translation with ample commentary that contextually situates the text in ways I don’t entirely agree with but do appreciate, I recommend: Aristotle (Author); Kennedy, George A. (Translator). On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. (1991 Translation of 4th Century BCE Treatise) ↩
- A brief summary of some of what I’ve written elsewhere will be available in my next book, as well as part of the What is Rhetoric? Series adapted from it, which I’ll link once it’s up. ↩
- Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly — Speaking Isn’t Writing, Writing Isn’t Speaking | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric ↩
- I like to be accurate, and in the interests of that, I can’t attribute this aphorism to any one person when it has appeared so many times before the people often cited as coining it ever uttered it. Often attributed now to Arnold Palmer or Gary Player in the realm of golf, they may certainly have helped popularize it for many, and live and breathe as examples of it themselves, but this was a sentiment both shared and voiced by many long before either of them picked up a club. For just a few examples from largely English speaking works, see: The Harder I Practice, the Luckier I Get | Quote Investigator. ↩
- Preparation 10 — There’s a Rhetoric to Preparation — Preparation is Productive | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric ↩
- Preparation 12 — The Big Picture of Preparation | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric ↩
He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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