Practicing Perfectly

The April/May Issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis featured the text from a speech delivered by Senator Tom Cotton from Tennessee. The title was “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington Cemetery.”

The 3rd United States Infantry Regiment is known as “The Old Guard.” In 1948 The Old Guard became the Army’s ceremonial unit. It this capacity, The Old Guard holds mission responsibility for performing military honor funerals in Arlington Cemetery.

Honorable Mr. Cotton served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, between these tours, he served with The Old Guard. “While we often performed more than 20 funerals a day, we knew that—for the fallen and the family—each funeral was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, a lifetime in the making.”

Consequently, there is tremendous pressure to perform everything with precision and excellence.

“Each morning, casket teams practice folding the flag, even though they had folded thousands of them.” Also, “We talked through the key sequences and cues before each funeral, sometimes conducting the same talk-through six times in a day. Nothing was taken for granted.”

Question: In the work that we do, helping people prepare for the unexpected, should we give our work any less attention?

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” (Attributed to Vince Lombardi)

Our Brains and Practice
In order to perform any kind of task, we must activate various portions of our brain. The brain develops a processing efficiency when specific actions and behaviors are repeated.

The human brain functions in a spectacular fashion. According to neuroscientists, neurons are the key to the brain’s power. A neuron is made up of:

  1. Dendrites which receive signals from other neurons
  2. The Brain Cell itself which processes those signals
  3. Axons which are like long cables that reach out and interact with other neurons’ dendrites

Communication between neuron cells happens when they send nerve impulses (electrical charges) down the axon of one neuron to the dendrites of the next neuron in the chain. This process is repeated neuron to neuron, and eventually the nerve signals reach the intended destination. The whole process happens at an incredibly rapid speed.

When we practice skills over and over, we cause those neural pathways to work more effectively. The physiological process is called “myelination.” Myelination allows nerve impulses to move more quickly.

This effectiveness can be unfortunate and detrimental. Practicing the wrong behavior makes the brain’s process of performing the wrong behavior more effective. We can become really good at performing very badly.

The lesson of neuroscience? Repetition is important, but repeating the right behaviors is critical.

Applications for Your Business
If you are an independent financial professional, this brain functionality has many important implications for your success. You only have so much time to speak face-to-face with clients or potential clients. In every client appointment you have a brief opportunity to present your concerns, recommend solutions and urge action. A great presentation should include context, drama, conflict, humor, and entertainment. A first-rate performance cannot be achieved without rehearsing.

Five Ways to Engage in Perfect Practice
First, you may not know how good or bad you currently perform. To improve, you first need to know what needs improving. The best tool for self-evaluation is to give a presentation or practice an actual client interview and have it videotaped. Things to look for:

  • Purpose. Did you provide an agenda? Did you provide a preview of the topics that will be discussed? Did you introduce the purpose of the presentation, and then share why the presentation is important by reviewing implications and possible outcomes?
  • Physical cues. Do you have proper posture? Are you slouching, folding your arms or making yourself appear smaller than you are? Do you maintain eye contact?
  • Facial expression. Are you inviting to watch? Patronizing? Do you smile? Does your expression seem forced?
  • Voice inflection. Are you sounding credible? Confident? Compassionate? Others-focused
  • Hand gestures. Are your hands distracting? Do they accentuate your points?
  • Content. Are you boring? Do you unnecessarily repeat words? Do you use humor effectively? Are you good at telling stories?
  • Unintended communication. Did you sigh or yawn at any time? Did you look at your phone when it buzzed on the desk? Did you otherwise indicate that you wished to be somewhere else?
  • Emphasis. Ask others to view the video. Can they correctly identify the points you were attempting to emphasize?
  • Personality. Are you projecting the real you, authentically?

Practice your ability to speak enthusiastically, respectfully, with sincerity and conviction.

Second, choose a strong vocabulary. Words are not all equal in terms of impact. Words are cues. Words are triggers. The right words are capable of transforming an absolute “no” into an almost “yes” and a “perhaps” into “definitely!”

Practice using impactful, purposeful words. Words that engender an emotional response.

Examples:

  • New
  • You
  • Proven
  • Seize
  • Limited
  • Discount
  • Profitable
  • Authentic
  • Reliable
  • Assured
  • Triumphant
  • Admiration
  • Authority

Start and end with key points and be certain to use the most impactful words in doing so.

Third, time yourself. It takes practice to communicate information succinctly without the fluff. Use shorter sentences. Pause with effectiveness. Trim your presentation so that you are neither repetitive nor superfluous.

Fourth, take notes. Whenever you notice that you stumble over your words, misstate something, make a mistake or have an uncomfortable moment, take note of the issue and consider how you will improve. After all, this is why you’re practicing in the first place. You can write down things like what you can cut out, ways to better emphasize certain parts, learning to enunciate important words or use better inflection. It will surprise you to discover a wide range of opportunities for you to become more effective when you take the time to look at yourself closely.

Fifth, seek feedback from existing clients. Ask them to rate you on these points:

  • Are you relatable?
  • Do you have a good sense of humor?
  • Are you an active listener?
  • Do you use effective analogies, metaphors or illustrations?
  • Do you come across as fully “present” when with them?
  • Do they feel talked “with” or talked “at?”


Practicing anything perfectly means seeing each skill as something new. At first, most things we do seem like old friends, familiar and comfortable. That feeling will never lead to improvement. Practicing perfectly means treating everything we do as if it is a new skill. Initially, it might feel stiff and awkward. But as we practice, our communication gets smoother and our presentations feel more natural and comfortable. What practice is actually doing is helping the brain optimize for this improved set of coordinated behaviors. Through the process of myelination our brains gain increased efficiency as behaviors are repeated. Practicing the right behaviors perfectly will cause us to perform perfectly.

We owe it to others to be effective in communicating and presenting. Through practice we can:

  • Engage purposefully
  • Listen patiently
  • Communicate clearly
  • Use stories effectively
  • Create a warm atmosphere
  • Speak in our own natural voice
  • Properly use body gestures

Do clients deserve anything less?

David J. Murphy, CLU, ChFC, FLMI, ia a director, vice president, team leader, speaker and mentor for Global Leadership Partners.

For nearly four decades Murphy worked in the financial services industry, and has held positions in sales, marketing, product development, training and development, distribution, agency management, and recruiting. In his latest role he was responsible for managing National Account relationships. In this role he shared business leadership and practice management concepts with business owners, marketing organizations and independent financial professionals. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade journals and a keynote speaker at industry events.

After 37 wonderful years in financial services, it was time for Murphy to give back, to share with others the training, development and experiences he enjoyed by God’s grace, and encourage others who are just starting out or seeking to grow.

Global Leadership Partners identifies, equips and sends business leaders to speak at leadership seminars in partnership with organizations primarily in Eastern Europe, but eventually, around the world. The intent is to foster development of foreign leaders who will courageously stand for strong values and a high ethical standard. This work is based on the belief that the world will be a better place when filled with leaders who lead according to proven values and bedrock principles.

Murphy is a frequent contributor to industry trade journals and is available as a keynote speaker for life insurance industry meetings and training events. He can be reached by telephone at: 312-859-3064. Email: murpd191@gmail.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/InLifeOnPurpose.