Why don't people get better at public speaking just by speaking in public? Well, it's the same reason golfers don't get better just by playing golf. But both could make giant strides if they just understood how talent actually works. It is understandable, it is systemised, and it can be replicated. I'd like to show you how...
I have a long and detailed presentation on talent, but here is the simple version. Talent is neither inborn nor genetic. To develop talent - in anything - you need all of the constituent parts in this formula:
That's it; the whole enchilada. And it applies to anything.
This formula is the result of decades of international study into the topic of talent, and is admirably explored in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, and Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated.
The talent equation:
Let's start with Yearning. You have to want to learn. If you have no desire to improve, the other factors will remain irrelevant, in a 'horse to the water' sort of way. However, if you do have even the slightest inkling for betterment, you're already at a distinct advantage over those who do not. Now you will need the next factor: Input.
Input is any form of teaching or coaching. Simply put, you need someone to show you how. If you have yearning but no input, your development can only progress so far, and it will be slow.
It's important to note that self-teaching is not nearly as effective as having another person coach you, particularly in the early stages of developing proficiency in a new field. Master practitioners may know enough about their fields to coach themselves, but starting out, we don't know what we don't know.
The most important ingredient:
The next factor is the most important of all: Deliberate Practice. This is vastly different to what most people consider to be practice. Deliberate Practice occurs when you break a thing down to its constituent parts, and then work on getting better at each part in isolation. You achieve this only through mind-numbing amounts of repetition, with a focus on improving each element.
It explains why some people can put in the fabled 10,000 hours of practice playing golf, and not improve one jot, while others will soar to the professional ranks with the same amount of time. The difference lies in how they practice.
An average golfer, for instance, will spend x amount of time playing a round of golf. There may be yearning, but there is no outside input, and no deliberate practice. Just generic golfing. Hence, his time teaches him almost nothing.
A great golfer, however, will spend the same number of hours practicing precisely how to get a ball out of a sand bunker. He focuses on just this one element, and does it over and over, thus improving one constituent part of his total game. He then moves on to another part. And that is Deliberate Practice. He may even do it in conjunction with the input of a coach, which would greatly enhance his efficacy.
And that's why most people will never get better at Public Speaking, despite a lifetime of giving presentations at work. They are not improving the constituent parts of their speaking abilities. Moreover, they receive little to no coaching or constructive feedback.
They are merely 'playing a game of golf.' Furthermore, they are generally traumatised by each instance, which reduces their capacity for the very first element in the talent equation: yearning. Because they fear it, they don't want to learn how to do it better.
How to apply the talent equation to public speaking:
So, armed with this knowledge, how exactly do you break public speaking down into its bits and pieces; it's constituent nuts 'n bolts?
I have an exercise that I use when training executives, and you can try it for yourself. Initially, it looks and feels rather ridiculous. However, the more time we spend doing it, the more the benefit becomes apparent to my trainees.
I get them to stand in front of a room, as though poised to deliver a speech. But that's where things get abstract: Instead of speaking, they have to count. They have to count using different emotions, and at different speeds and volumes, as though they were giving the greatest oratory performance in the history of public speaking, with every shade and nuance of feeling, even though all they are saying is, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5...!"
Why? Because it allows them to practice the parts without having to think about the words. I take intellectual content out of the equation, I take fear of speaking out of the equation, and I get them to focus only on the rhythms and physical movements of speaking. This way they can work on what to do with their hands; how to stand and move; how to use their voices; how to create emphasis and emotion, pausing, playing with facial expressions, etc.
It's like a musician practicing scales on a piano. In fact, I call it 'the scales of public speaking.'
Having coached them through this process, I then assign homework. My delegates must spend a certain amount of time in front of a mirror at home (preferably in private; families have a way of doubling over with laughter), and simply 'going through the motions,' over and over, until they like the rhythms and patterns they see in the mirror.
Then, once they are back in front of a live audience and they replace the numbers with content, the deeply ingrained muscle-memory kicks in, and the grace is naturally there.
Deliberate Practice. Break down and rebuild. It's the single greatest distinction between amateurs and super-performers.
Here is an interesting and counter-intuitive point about talent. When it starts coming naturally and automatically, you have hit your first talent cap; your first developmental ceiling.
This happens in a very obvious way with driving. When your average driver gets to the point where it 'comes without thinking,' he has hit his performance potential and will generally not improve further over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes, he will even get slightly worse, year by year.
So, is it possible to break through such a performance barrier, and achieve the next level of performance? Yes, but only consciously. You have to identify the ceiling - realise that you have reached a level of automatic proficiency - and then overcome it by design. Otherwise, it will simply never happen.
Using the car example, once you've reached automatic proficiency and realised it, you might then do an advanced driving course, which pushes you beyond your comfort zone, or perhaps learn some new, daring stunts involving a car (just not in my neighbourhood, please).
This forces you to think about your craft again, and to learn by conscious design instead of repeating apathetically.
If you identify and use this simple principle, your performance potential - in any sphere - will be leagues ahead of most.
Douglas Kruger has won the SA Championships in both a sporting pursuit and an intellectual one. He is a three-time winner of the SA National Skateboarding Championships, and a five-time winner of the Southern African Championships for Public Speaking. He is also the author of three books. See him in action, or review his books and articles, at www.douglaskruger.co.za. Follow @DouglasKruger; email .
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