As a way of learning, trial and error has its place, but there are areas of life where it seems to me it’s really not suitable – and public speaking is high on that list.
For a start, if you’re giving a public performance, you owe it to your audience to know what you’re doing and to do it to the best of your ability. Of course, if you’re new to public speaking you won’t do it as well in the early days as you will when you’ve notched up a bit of experience – the same goes for any activity that relies on skill rather than just luck – but that doesn’t mean you should begin your public-speaking career by simply pitching up and having a go.
I admire the courage and openness of Peter Sims in sharing his story on the Harvard Business Review’s blog (you can read it here) but I take issue with his conclusion:
I’ve spent years studying leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity, and as we’re very slowly starting to understand, no one is born as a great leader or innovator. It must be learned and consciously developed through experience.
So, if you want to improve your public speaking, are you prepared to put yourself out there repeatedly to improve, and go from suck to non-suck and become a great speaker? The choice is yours.
Entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity and, to a lesser extent, leadership are all areas where trial and error is an essential part of the process of discovery. For me, public speaking is in an entirely different category, along with foreign languages, sport, playing a musical instrument and other skills that you can learn by just doing them but which are so much easier with a bit of help from a teacher or coach.
And, actually, I’m not sure that “putting yourself out there repeatedly” is enough for every public speaker to improve. Many of my clients have been putting themselves out there for years but find they can’t quite get a handle on why public speaking is so difficult for them and continues to be so stressful, even though they’re very experienced now.
It is axiomatic that confidence is a crucial element in public-speaking success. Putting yourself out there without really knowing what you’re doing is laying yourself open to failure and criticism, which, obviously, can undermine your confidence – as Mr Sims himself found. If you were seriously lacking in confidence before, it can be very hard to get back on the metaphorical horse after it has thrown you. Your fears have been confirmed and the whole thing can become a nightmare. If you weren’t lacking in confidence before, a bad experience can shake your self-belief. In the case of someone over-confident, this can perhaps be a useful wake-up call but, in the majority of cases, having the first few attempts at public speaking go badly can be extremely off-putting.
So much stress and misery can be avoided by taking a session or two of public-speaking coaching, either with me or with some other trainer. The techniques of effective public speaking can be learnt in a few hours – often in only 90 minutes – and I urge you to invest in doing this first. Then put yourself out there repeatedly, once you know what you’re doing.