Following on from my last post, about not letting our confidence be dented by events and circumstances beyond our control, I wanted to draw attention too to the danger of setting ourselves up for failure.
The reason I haven’t posted for a month is that I’ve been away, attempting to walk the Trans-Pennine Trail, the beautiful, well marked and generally excellent path that runs coast to coast from Southport, through Liverpool, across to Hull and Hornsea. It’s 215 miles of almost exclusively flat, easygoing track. I’m reasonably fit, I’m strong and I’ve got stamina and it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew it would be hard but it never occurred to me I would actually find it impossible. After the first two days, my feet were so badly swollen and blistered that I struggled to stand, let alone walk far. In the end, I managed a bit more than a hundred miles on foot and had to catch the rest up on public transport. This came as a major blow to my self-esteem and it’s taken some work to sort out in my mind what I did wrong, to forgive myself for my mistakes and to learn from them so I don’t repeat them.
The lessons of my trans-pennine expedition are equally useful, I believe, in a public-speaking context, so I’ll share them with you here, in the hope they can help you in your quest for success at public speaking.
Be realistic about what you can achieve at your current level of experience
If you are an inexperienced long-distance walker, don’t set yourself the daunting task of covering an average of 25 miles a day for eight days. You’re not ready for this yet: be realistic. Just because you can’t do it now doesn’t mean that, after a few months or years of practice, you won’t be able to do that and more, but trying to go too far too fast is just setting yourself up for failure.
If you are an inexperienced public speaker, don’t accept a speaking engagement that is significantly beyond your current abilities. Addressing a thousand people at a conference is not the way to begin your public-speaking career. Even if public speaking holds no fear for you, trying to run before you can walk is asking for trouble.
Prepare and practise thoroughly, using the equipment you will be using in the event
In fairness to myself, it is quite tricky to practise walking 25 miles a day for a week without actually doing it. However, one mistake I made was doing most of my training in the controlled environment of the gym, which did not prepare me for the gruelling outdoor miles through the pouring rain and burning sun. Another was not to have sufficiently tested/worn in my supposedly state-of-the-art hiking boots.
When preparing for public speaking, you really do need to rehearse. Knowing what you want to say is a great deal of the battle but it is not enough: you won’t do yourself justice unless you have practised saying it all out loud. And if you’re going to be using props and/or a microphone, it’s essential to practise with those too.
Beware of magical thinking
So fixated was I in my belief that I could push my body through this ordeal by sheer force of will, I had no back-up plan. I had refused to give mind-space to any thought of what might happen if I couldn’t make it. On the face of it, this may sound like a good thing, confirmation of my own self-belief and rejection of anything resembling defeat. Actually, I realise now, there’s a degree of magical thinking going on here. I was in denial that failure was possible and this is not the way to succeed. My friend Danny, who used to be a soldier, helped me to see this, explaining that his confidence in situations like this is based not on a blinkered, naive determination that everything will be all right (because it’s got to be), but on the knowledge that he has thought through everything that could possibly go wrong and is prepared for the worst, should it come his way.
In my public speaking ebook, I’ve mentioned the danger of maintaining a spurious sense of control by subconsciously sabotaging our own efforts. Someone who hates and fears public speaking may (outside conscious awareness) be tempted not to prepare or practise, to set him/herself up for failure, in order to be able to say afterwards, “I told you I was useless at public speaking,”. However dire being useless at public speaking is, it’s familiar, which lends a curious sort of satisfaction and feeling that the world is at least predictable. As Gregory Norminton puts it in his book of aphorisms The Lost Art of Losing, “We prefer to suffer than to recover from those ills that define us”. This is very common but, of course, something to be confronted if we’re serious about wanting success. The first step is to understand what’s going on; once we’ve analysed our behaviour and admitted to ourselves how we truly feel, we can begin to prevent sabotage and to free ourselves of the attitude that is deliberately denying us the success we are, at one level, afraid of.
What I learnt from the Pennines, with Danny’s help, takes this a stage further. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been observing a young friend getting to grips with public speaking and now I see clearly that she’s going through a similar arc of thought-pattern to mine on the Trail. With the fearlessness of youth, my friend got stuck in and gave a few speeches for which she was almost totally unprepared. When, as time went by, it dawned on her she wasn’t doing it very well, the conclusion she drew was that she is not as good as she thought she was. Again, magical thinking: I’m cool, I’m brave, I’m outspoken and I’ve got a loud voice… Listen up, fans! … Oh dear, that didn’t go the way I’d hoped… Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m not cool or brave after all… Actually, I’m rubbish and I don’t know why anybody would want to listen to me. All this is just childhood myths playing out in the adult world; none of it is grounded in cold, hard fact. The fact is, she is good it at but, just like everybody else, she has to put the spadework in. Confidence in one’s public-speaking (or any other) abilities must not come from some mystical, unfounded assertion that “it’ll be fine” but be firmly based on solid preparation, practice and knowing what to do if something goes wrong.