- 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
We Can and Often Do Over-Prepare
Despite many self-help mantras to the contrary, it’s easy to over prepare. It may even be the norm — particularly among those of us that care a lot about what we’re doing and have a good work ethic.
Being over-prepared is having put any time and effort into preparation that either is not worth its corresponding return-on-investment, or actively detracts from our ability to perform.
Preparation isn’t free, though it can deceptively feel that way. Just as our audience always has other things they could be doing, there’s always something else we could be putting our attention to because we all only have so many hours in a day. Like all opportunities, preparing has an opportunity cost. We can spend all semester preparing for the final exam of one particular course, but if we do it to the detriment of all the rest of our tests, then our average grade will likely be the same as if we had slacked off and done mediocre on the many of them. We can spend months readying ourselves for a negotiation, but if we sacrifice the opportunity to make many valuable sales within that period of time, we risk putting all of our eggs into one basket, only to have someone else run off with it after we’ve better equipped our betrayer to negotiate with someone else. In my experience, most of us that care at all to prepare in Rhetorical terms are either in the process of becoming a great success, or a good success looking to become great. If we don’t much care about how things turn out and live moment to moment, preparing for anything would be the last thing on our list that we’d probably never stop to make. If we care enough to prepare, we also undoubtedly have an entire life’s worth of work to balance alongside of that. We don’t often consider the weight of what preparation is worth to us because, compared to most of the other things we’re used to making those considerations about, it’s far less tangible.
A prominent trend in the over-achievers I work with is to prepare too much, rather than too little. At times, it borders on procrastination, building up one grand Rhetorical engagement to such great heights that all the other things we’d be better off doing as it approaches get lost in the shadows of our mismanaged priorities. Our caring about something very deeply doesn’t mean that all efforts we make ensuring its success are well spent by default. Living in practice1 with Rhetoric increases our overall ability to deliver in everything we do, but there are still very real limits to our ability to perform with or for a particular audience within a given span of time. Increasing that is the long-term preparation that practice in any endeavor provides, while optimizing it and facilitating it is where our short-term preparation largely occurs. We’re at our preparatory best when we can both understand and apply that knowledge to making the best use of what resources we have available in a strategic way that not only works, but is worth the effort.
Likening our ability to perform Rhetorically to physical training as I tend to do: we can all develop relatively great strength and athletic ability unless we have some manner of extreme disability — the Rhetorical equivalent being along the lines of ‘missing a face’, or being deaf or blind, not being shy, lacking confidence, or being relatively stupid.The issue isn’t whether we can improve to appreciable degrees, but instead revolves around how quickly and at what cost. If we deliberately exercise with those ends in mind, put great care into managing our recovery, all while getting expert feedback from someone that both knows better and has valuable outside perspective we necessarily cannot have on things regarding ourselves, almost anyone can increase their physical abilities by many orders of magnitude in most metrics we can muster. But we’re still not going to be able to go from lifting rocks to lifting cars within a month’s time. If growth were that easy, the athlete that spent the most time in the gym would win, regardless of the event, and the role of a coach would be relegated to locking the door behind them once they entered, only letting them see the light of day when the time was right, the food ran out, or the septic tank became full. Preparing for an event would be largely about logging in as many hours as we could, the more the better. Olympiads would be forged by locking our children in gymnasiums at increasingly early ages, world records being broken by those that began training with molecular dumbbells while in the womb as Eye of the Tiger blared in from nearby headphones and Gatorade was injected into the amniotic fluid. We’d all be great at sports and Rhetoric if it were that simple, and no doubt many of us would get hurt as we pursued excellence in either.
Timing is also a crucial element to preparation that preparing for Rhetorical engagements shares in common with athletic preparation. Athletic training typically occurs in cycles, changing what we do over time to give us continually new stimuli to adapt to, as well as serving to maximize our growth and recovery so we don’t spend months burning ourselves out before a competition. We ramp up our efforts, tone them down, try various things, and in general, do things more complex and nuanced in service to preparing for an event than the physical equivalent of grinding or cramming. Approaching a competition itself, it’s rare that a ‘tapering’ period doesn’t occur after all the preparatory work leading up to it, which is more or less ‘taking it easy’ to be in the best, most recovered state we can be in before we deliver on the purpose of all our prior work. We’re better off being relaxed and rested before an event, there not being much more we can ‘do’ when we’re that close to it that’s going to benefit our performance, beyond putting ourselves in a good state to perform in through things like eating, sleeping, and continuing to apply our technique. We don’t do hundreds of push-ups the night before a big game not because we’re lazy, but because that would be stupid. Even if the event we were preparing for was a push-up contest, those of us going in sore and tired are probably going to lose if our competition isn’t inept or limbless.
Preparing for more mentally inclined things like Rhetoric is in principle similar to preparing for traditionally athletic ones, though thankfully less limited by genetic gifts like arm span and lung capacity. There’s no hope for someone with four feet of reach in the NBA — longer limbs have better reach — or an eight foot taller powerlifter — longer limbs have less leverage — but in a relatively untrained playing field of people, anyone can rule Rhetorical realms with enough effort, guidance, and practice. Training for them isn’t cramming, however. Last-ditch efforts to make up for not having made a legitimate effort prior can work in school, but rarely help elsewhere. It’s an unfortunate behavior we’re encouraging in ourselves in the way we have approached standardized education, and has carry over effects to how those of us that have spent our time well before an engagement choose to prepare in the moments leading up to it. Were that not the case, it’s still natural to run away with the enthusiasm that comes from wanting to do as much as we can to get whatever results we’re after, erring on the side of wanting to ‘do more’ not because doing more always works, but because it always makes us feel better about what we’re doing, serving primarily to quell our anxiety about being generally unfit to handle our Rhetorical affairs as well as we know we could.
We view preparation for physical events as training — a complex cultivation period of developing and maintaining relevant knowledge and skills — but preparation for Rhetorical things as isolated efforts — something simple to be powered through in a short period of time in order to get out in front of a crowd and ‘fake it’ as best we can before never wanting to go through with it again. This is a root problem to how must of us prepare, and relates to our ability to view Rhetoric as a ‘thing’ we do and keep in practice with in service to being able to excel at it and apply it to opportunities that come up as-needed. When preparing with a narrow view of Rhetorical endeavors in mind, we either go big and burn out in ways detrimental to the performances we’re trying to bolster, or we hold the entire situation in such insurmountably high psychological regard that we scare ourselves off from making an honest attempt to become ready for it. Neither are good uses of our time and effort. In many cases, we’d be better off taking a nap instead if our options were limited to those.
Once we’re in the mindset of wanting to prepare as best we can, it’s almost natural to prepare too much, not just in the wrong ways. If we want to prepare well, however, we need to approach preparation for Rhetorical engagements as having its own set of knowledge and skills necessary to be done well.
We can’t know the limits of how much our preparatory efforts will aid us until we understand both Rhetoric and preparation better. And once we do, we’re at our best when we strategically marshal what resources we have to preparation, because it’s as easy to over spend on it as it is to neglect it — at least if we’re the kind of person that’s found their way to reading this sentence. Overspending on preparation can take the form of exhausting ourselves to the point that we hinder our ability to perform because we’ve outpaced our ability to recover and grow, or it can take the form of having put in fifty hours of preparation time for the same benefits we could have gotten if we’d only spent two. In either case, there’s a cost-benefit consideration to be made that we are only equipped to see once we have more knowledge and experience in the Rhetoric of what we intend to undertake. Without that, perceiving our preparatory efforts as a coherent undertaking is itself difficult, that perception being a prerequisite to making informed decisions about how well we’re preparing.
Plenty of us avoid Rhetorical situations because we’re implicitly fearful of the time it’ll take to ‘ready’ ourselves for them, but plenty of them are worth doing poorly if we lack the time to do them elegantly.
If something doesn’t much matter to us, either in terms of the relationships involved or their results, we may at times be better off not preparing at all. In Rhetoric, everything counts, but that doesn’t mean everything matters. Preparation in other pursuits is easier in this regard because they’re bracketed off more readily from one another in quality and frequency.Even the best athletes don’t go around playing ten or more games a day, and there’s an obvious division between a designated engagement and the rest of their lives. With Rhetoric, however, we go from doing one Rhetorical to the next, some being personal, some being professional, the lines all laying only where we feel we can most productively place them, and it’s not always certain when one engagement begins or the other ends. We can’t prioritize all of them because that’s not how prioritizing works. We’re always going to give more time and effort to some rather than others, some things necessarily suffering for it in order to better leverage ourselves in the most important ones. That’s a highly personal thing we all need to come to terms with and decide for ourselves. It’s also part of the reason why, as we’ll come to, I usually recommend we place most of our preparatory efforts into staying in Rhetorical practice on a general level1. Everything matters and everything counts, but there’s a limit to how much we can count at once, forcing us to let certain things go. When we get good with Rhetoric, we let certain things go with intention, not by default or negligence.
At other times, the burdens of informing, persuading, and motivating aren’t necessarily entirely on our shoulders, which along with them, shifts the burdens of preparation — often times onto our audience.Though we always do well to speak and write well, there are times when the burden of listening is heavier on our audience than it is on ourselves, and it isn’t expedient to prepare any longer than it takes to have something semi-coherent to engage them with. If we know a project plan to intimate degrees and are presenting to competent employees eager to carry out our wishes, for example, there’s a burden of listening on them in their role as employees that doesn’t exist in the same way in the opposite direction to us as speakers. We can certainly aid their task of listening with good Rhetoric on our part, but if we could have been spending our time towards making better products instead of overly preparing to tell people how to do their jobs, it’s likely a better idea to let an already eager audience exert more effort to figure out what we’re trying to say if we haven’t yet developed our ability to say it, and we can easily correct misunderstandings if and when they arise without dire consequences. Allowing an open dialog between parties goes a long way here, as we can save ourselves time by preparing less if questions about what we mean can be asked and answered in expedient ways.
This happens most frequently in academia. It takes a lot of time and effort to developed skilled expertise in a field — assuming the field itself isn’t the stereotype of empty Rhetoric — and though good Rhetoric will be invaluable to us in any discursive or thoughtful endeavor, if we’ve spent thirty years finding the cure to any number of cancers, we’re better off presenting and compiling our results to get them into the general discourse as soon as we can, not becoming master Rhetors before we present. If we’re horrible at that, best to hire someone like an editor for help as needed2, not hitting the Rhetorical gym while delaying countless of us into dying for not having valuable insights out there soon enough.
At other times, we’ll be faced with things like hard deadlines for messy things ill-suited to them, giving us Rhetorical conundrums we won’t be able to adequately solve within the limits of the time and attention we have on hand. External circumstances and gross incompetence will often make the questions we’re left to answer regarding our preparatory efforts unfair, poorly framed, and without much we can do about any of it. ‘Winning’ won’t always be an option for us in everything we either set out to do, or has been set out for us to do.
What We Prepare for Changes, as Do We
If Rhetoric’s hard, life’s usually harder. Thankfully, getting good with Rhetoric goes a long way towards making our lives easier in both amenable and averse conditions like these.
One of the endless reasons we’re better off spending most of our preparatory efforts at the general level of our Rhetorical knowledge and skills is so that we can reap broader benefits when engaging in a greater number of specific things than if we had only prepared for any one of them individually. Ideally when we prepare, we’re training ourselves to become someone that can extemporaneously do well in any Rhetorical engagement, not someone that somehow managed to do well at one specific engagement while incurring great costs that have little carry-over once we’re through. The more experienced we become, the more we’ll find that the latter isn’t really an option, it only feels like one. If we’re honest with ourselves, even when we tried our best, our best still has a hard ceiling to it — at least in the short-term. Raising that ceiling is the long-term goal, as well as removing any momentary obstacles standing in our way, and maintaining ourselves for peak performance, all while not spending so much time and attention on it that we can’t find any left to put towards anything else.
It not being a good idea to care too much about things unworthy of it in the grander scheme of things is part of the reason we don’t consider ‘neurotic’ a compliment. Unfortunately, that’s our default reaction when preparing for things once we begin in earnest. We care very deeply about a short-term goal at the expense of leveraging our resources towards longer-term considerations that — had we seen and considered them earlier — would have improved our ability to deliver and perform when the time arose far more than any desperate efforts we might have made as we neared an imagined finish line. In Rhetoric, it’s important to remember that we’re always moving on to the next thing, and sometimes it’s better to get expert help if we’re having trouble moving forward on immediate engagements.
Developing better Rhetoric is an investment that never stops giving us compounded returns, but we can still place too much care in the wrong things, which we tend to do when we’re just getting started and know little about it. Often, we’re not even sure where we’re at or where we’re going.
Improving in Rhetoric takes a keen knowledge of where we’re presently at concerning things like our ability to perform. Where we put our preparatory efforts is always in relation to where we realistically are in terms of the relevant knowledge and skills we have at the moment, just as much as where we’d like to one day be. Sometimes, we’re not even on the map of where we’d need to go if we wanted to be good at the Rhetoric of what we’re trying to do. The problem is us. Sometimes, however, what we’re considering preparing for falls off the map on our journey towards readying ourselves for it, no longer being where we’d originally thought not because we were wrong, but because it moved along with us.
The world around us doesn’t stand still, and neither do we. Particularly in things concerning relationships and creative work, the world and everyone in it changes as time goes on, as does the Rhetoric of what we’re doing, that being the most relatable and certain definition of time we can make: widespread change we can never entirely account for or predict the more of it we consider. It’s a humbling thing to appreciate, but what’s most effective to be said or done in complex Rhetorical engagements changes along with the people and Rhetoric surrounding them that’s beyond our immediate control. When launching a new category of product, being first to market is a sought after position for a reason. In making narrative works, the other narrative works coming out and in common circulation form the basis of a lot of what our audience can and will be experiencing when they engage with ours. Ground-breaking scientific findings are no longer Earth-shaking once someone else has claimed credit for discovering them. And a big sale we’d like to sign can grow small by the time we get around to closing it.
In addition to having costs, opportunities also have windows of time to them, each of which slowly closes as others open up, albeit at different rates. We probably could spend a lifetime preparing to propose, for example, but by then our would-be spouse would either be dead, or a brain floating in a jar — neither of which we should want to marry. We could spend just as long writing a book, only to die before we finish it, which is unfortunately the norm all too often for people that haven’t been taught the Rhetoric of writing3.
Preparation done too early frequently goes to waste as well. What we are preparing for often falls apart or changes the further away it is from when we start, at times based on what we uncover or conduct. That’s one of the reasons procrastination can become an anxious habit — many of the things we put off long enough are no longer relevant, or otherwise ‘disappear’ before we have a chance to do them. That’s great if we spent that time nervously putting it off, but unfortunate if we spent that time diligently prepping for something that for any number of reasons ceased to be. I usually advise people to start early and small for that reason, but we’re still better off spending most of our preparation time keeping in practice, particularly for engagements that are far enough away that we wouldn’t encounter them on a calendar while planning our day.
As bad and easy as over-preparing is, it’s unfortunately not the only pothole on our rode to delivery. In addition to wasting valuable time and attention that we’ll never get back by over-preparing, we can also fall into the trap of preparing poorly4.
Footnotes, References, and Citations
- Preparation 11 — The Best Preparation Is Staying in Practice | Good Rhetor – All about Rhetoric ↩ ↩
- Editing Manifesto — 21 Urgent Reasons We All Need to Hire an Editor Immediately for Everything We Do | Good Rhetor – All about Rhetoric ↩
- Editing Manifesto — 21 Urgent Reasons We All Need to Hire an Editor Immediately for Everything We Do — Writing Well Is Editing | Good Rhetor – All about Rhetoric ↩
- Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly | 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.
Latest posts by SRhyse (see all)
- Preparation 12 — The Big Picture of Preparation - 2015-10-09
- Preparation 11 — The Best Preparation Is Staying in Practice - 2015-09-10
- Preparation 10 — There’s a Rhetoric to Preparation - 2015-08-06