No matter how much preparation you do, you can still only gain true refinement—and the resulting confidence—from hours spent in the ring, at the podium, in the conference room, on the band stand or fighting the fire.
Look at The Beatles. They started playing together seven years before landing in the U.S.—a good band from Liverpool that became great by clocking thousands of performance hours playing in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that The Beatles spent 270 nights playing for between five and eight hours per night. By the time they had their seminal success in 1964, they had played nearly 1,200 times. About the Hamburg experience, John Lennon once said, “We got better and got more confident. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our hearts and souls into it, to get ourselves over.”
Firefighter Billy Hayes did the same.
“I had an extensive background in that familiar environment through all the training, but until I actually went into a burning building for the first time, I didn’t 100 percent know how I was going to react. Then, you get to the point of experience where you can do it without even realizing what you’re doing and respect the fact that it becomes like muscle memory.”
Leigh Gallagher of FORTUNE (the TV/radio commentator) talks about her initial experiences on air, when she worked at Forbes Magazine and was chosen for the weekly show Forbes On Fox.
“I discovered that the only way to get better in television was to just keep getting back on the horse again when you feel like you’ve fallen off. You just get back on it. The path to getting better is the experience. I had the opportunity to do this show and that helped me make the transition [on air] much more easily, although it took a long time.”
When Ray Parker Jr. took on the role of front man, fear kicked in. Although he had his 10,000 performance hours as a guitar player, his new gig required an additional skill set.
“I knew I couldn’t sing that well. There’re 5,000 or 6,000 people out there, and I gotta sing front and center? The microphone and the spotlight are on me; it ain’t on someone else. I’m not standing in the back anymore with the drummer.” (No offense taken, Ray!)
He’d been on stage thousands of times, but never like that, with the whole show depending on him. “That was a pretty scary time.” So, he told the sound guy to turn the backgrounds and guitar up and his lead vocals the heck down.
“I know I looked pretty. You know, I got my hair done, and my clothes happening. I’m gonna rock with the guitar, and the girls are gonna be happy. Just make sure they hear a little bit of what I’m saying, and let’s get on with it.”
It actually took Ray a couple of years before he developed the confidence to sing comfortably on stage, and those two years were filled with an awful lot of practice on stage. There are distinct capabilities that a performer, presenter or communicator can only gain from actual presentation.
Foreigner lead singer Kelly Hansen remembers opening up for Led Zeppelin at the O2 arena in London. The charity show had been postponed because Jimmy Page fractured a finger, which changed the plans for all of the performers involved.
“It was so chaotic. We had to change our tour plans to make the date. We went straight to a sound check where Bill Wyman [of The Rolling Stones] was directing people. There were cables everywhere. That whole day, you’re meeting people. You’re shuffling around. You’re seeing everybody in the world, from Paul McCartney to whomever else, and there are people coming in and out of the dressing room.
“It’s like skydiving. You know the plane won’t fly around forever. You have to jump out. After a few times, you start getting used to it. I don’t think the feeling of uneasiness or nervousness ever completely goes away, but you start getting more accustomed to the experience. And you need to trust the people handling the organization of your production and your sound system and your monitoring. Then, you can feel much more relaxed about going out.”
NFL sideline reporter Laura Okmin spent weeks prepping for her interview with quarterback Vince Young. She was planning to ask him about some very personal information. His response would determine how she would navigate the rest of the interview. “We sat down at his kitchen table. He’d just had his first son. He said something about the baby and about not sleeping. I knew about his past from all the preparation and study I’d done. I just sort of just zeroed in, ‘You didn’t have much of a childhood, did you?’”
And he opened up, telling Laura about his childhood nickname: Crack Baby. He described how his mother used to deal with him. She’d lock him in his bedroom, and he’d look out through a peephole and watch her and her friends doing drugs and having sex, until she made him go outside, where he got his ass kicked every night for being Crack Baby.
“All of a sudden, we start talking about his time in Tennessee, the beginning of his fall with the Titans. Luckily, I knew enough about him to be able to go into another place. I asked, ‘OK, so at what point when you were booed two years ago, did you start hearing Crack Baby in your head?’ And he said, ‘Immediately.’”
 From the book, Shout! by Philip Norman