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A few weeks ago, I was listening to an old episode of The Tim Ferris Show, in which Ferris was interviewing the actor Hugh Jackman. One of the most interesting concepts that was discussed was the “85% rule for optimal performance,” as Jackman was discussing his approach to fight scenes. If you’re reading this blog, you are probably neither a professional actor nor looking for advice for fighting, but I think that the idea behind the rule is equally helpful when thinking about a different kind of performance: the delivery of a speech.

So, what on earth is it?

In its simplest form, the 85% Rule says your performance will be better if you aim for using 85% of your capacity than if you aimed for 100%. Jackman introduced the idea by using runners as an example:

“If you tell most […] A-type athletes to run at their 85 percent capacity, they will run faster than if you tell them to run 100 [percent] because it’s more about relaxation and form and optimizing the muscles in the right way.”

– Hugh Jackman (from the transcript of the podcast)

Ferris then pointed out that the idea can be applied to other scenarios:

“I find so much truth in that statement. I haven’t ever thought of it, but you could apply that to sitting down and writing. You could apply it to almost anything where being overtense is not your friend, and it’s not going to help you.”

– Tim Ferris (also from the transcript)

Both men hit on something that is true of every human being: when we exert ourselves trying to perform at our maximum potential, we inevitably become tense and end up falling short of that potential as a result. I’ve seen this happen in my own life, with a piano recital for example: I was entirely capable of playing the song perfectly, but the desire to have a perfect performance in front of my friends, family, and strangers made me tense and distracted, which resulted in errors in my song.

It could be argued that this phenomenon was a result of being nervous, not because I was trying to perform at my full capacity… But to that, I would say that the two are inextricably linked: the nervousness came from an increased desire to succeed, which was a result of the higher stakes. The more you want to perform perfectly and the harder you exert yourself to do so, the more likely it becomes that you will make mistakes and then become discouraged by those mistakes (putting yourself into a downward spiral).

As a brief aside, there is some confusion about the origin of the 85% Rule. I’ll refrain from discussing the controversy here, but here is a link to a blog post that may answer some questions.

Why talk about the Rule here, on the Ethos Blog?

Beyond being an interesting concept, I believe that the 85% Rule is applicable to both competitive speech and debate (debates being composed of speeches) and public speaking in general. As Ferris said, the rule can be applied in any situation where being tense is not your friend, which would certainly include the presentation of a speech.

Relaxation is essential to maintaining a constant speed during a sprint, but it is essential to a great presentation in a different way. Simply put, it keeps the speech conversational. Speaking conversationally keeps your audience engaged: it is the opposite of a “scripted” or “staged” tone. When a great orator speaks, you forget that they are reading a script or following a strict outline with the major points that they want to make. Instead, it feels as if they are talking to you personally. This is the gold standard that we all ought to strive for, and to speak conversationally, you must be relaxed.

If you are relaxed, your audience is relaxed. You know you’re in control, and they know it. Conversely, if you are not relaxed, your audience probably isn’t either. Your confidence is low, which makes their confidence in you low. Contrary to popular belief, relaxation and confidence are very difficult to fake. If you’re doing your job well, you should have your audience’s undivided attention, which means they are picking up on the way you’re using your hands, where your eyes are looking, the emotion in your tone, and how you’re moving your legs and feet. Even things that you don’t realize you are doing, your audience will still pick up on.

How do I apply the Rule?

If you’re still reading, maybe I’ve convinced you. But you probably still have a big question: what does it really look like to apply the 85% Rule to my speaking? Well, to figure out what your 85% is, first decide what your 100% is. Imagine a completely flawless performance, where you live up to your potential perfectly. This probably won’t be too difficult to do… In fact, this is exactly what many people do before delivering their speeches! The problem is that they walk into the room with those expectations for themselves.

To apply the 85% Rule, you simply take that perfect performance that you’ve imagined and aim for 85% of it. Take some deep breaths: remember that you don’t have to be perfect. That alone should boost your relaxation and your confidence– even if you make mistakes, you haven’t failed your goal. Don’t be so wrapped up in perfection that you forget how to speak conversationally to your audience.

If this was helpful, let me know in the comments. If it wasn’t, leave a comment or let me know here.

Thanks for reading!

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