The Trough of Awkwardness and the Fallacy of Over-Rehearsing

How often have you heard someone, when preparing for a speech or presentation—or working towards some other form of public performance—state that he or she is worried about over-preparing?

Most often, I hear this these days in the context of presenting a powerpoint. I've heard it at ad agencies, on podcasts, in coffee shops.

The theory goes—if I prepare just enough to know the material, my talk will still feel just improvisational enough without being "over-rehearsed."

Here's a chart of that (not to scale):

Too much preparation chart

I've seen this happen, where the energy of a presentation was diminished as the presenter moved past "making it up on the spot" and got to a place of reciting their notes.

But, I'm here to tell you: over-rehearsing is a myth.

In reality, that feeling of peak performance is a mirage. And that dip in quality isn't the end of the road, but merely a transitional state. Here's what that looks like:

The through of awkwardness

When you see someone speaking or performing, and they're doing it with so much ease, it appears as if they're speaking extemporaneously, in reality they've put the work in to bridge the trough of awkwardness and achieve true mastery of the material.

I've experienced this myself, not with public speaking but with performing music. As a student in music school, my teachers were always pushing me to reach past that dip in performance to achieve true mastery.1 And mastery of the material is so important in music, as it is in public speaking. Once your fingers know the scale without you having to think about it, you can start to imbue your performance with meaning and emotion and connect with your audience.

Of course, not everything in your life demands this level of preparation. But, I urge you, if you ever have that feeling that you are worried about being over-prepared, find the time to push through it towards truly mastering the material.


  1. Admittedly, I've fallen short far more often than I would like.