You: But Coach, I just joined the team today.
Coach: We need you.
You: This is my first practice ever!
Coach: You can run, right?
You: yes, but…
Coach: If you can run, you can play.
Coach: Now hit the showers and lead us to victory tomorrow!
You: Couldn’t John/Jane do it?
Boss: I think you should do it.
You: I really don’t feel comfortable with that
Boss: You presented it to me just fine.
You: I’ve never presented to a group before…
Boss: Just improve it a bit and kill it!
Let’s consider the situation on the left. Pretty absurd, right? How about the situation on the right? Is it any different?
As I write this, I wonder how many people are arguing that it is different. I suspect that a majority of us are probably conflicted on the point. In modern culture, at least western cultures, it seems that public speaking is something of which we should just be capable. I’m not sure how we justify that thought, when most of us are well versed in the statistic that 70% of all people have a fear of public speaking. I can’t think of anything else that we would expect the same, not even writing. Imagine: “write this ad copy by tomorrow” said to some random worker. Interestingly, this seems to be a quite modern idea. Until recently orators, people who are highly skill public speakers, were highly revered for their abilities.
Consider these two scenarios again, but this time ask yourself if either of them are likely to occur. The sport scenario probably only occurs in the most desperate of situations and I think we can agree only with poor coaching. The public speaking one is taken straight out of the active nightmares of many a worker. It is also, unfortunately, the way many people get their first public speaking experiences. Those generally aren’t positive experiences for anyone.
Why can’t we just do it?
While it is true that public speaking is in a sense just speaking to people, it is something different, more. Just like playing in the big football/soccer game isn’t just running. Public speaking has its own structures and skills that are needed to be successful. Without knowledge and understanding of those rules we can’t present properly. The skills and tools we use in public speaking are specialized and often different to our everyday one-on-one conversations. Just like the ‘big game’, there are a lot of pressures on the public speaker.
The sport metaphor is actually very apt for public speaking. It allows us to look at public speaking differently than we usually do. We immediately see why the public speaking situation with the boss above generally gets bad results. It provides us with insight on why we can’t ‘just do it’ and that having to work at it is not only OK, but required just like a sport would require work. Our sport metaphor also can provide us with insight in what we need to do to get better.
Although the metaphor is apt, calling public speaking a sport isn’t accurate either. It’s generally just called public speaking, but its laden with connotations and doesn’t do its nature justice. Skill is good, but is confusing because there are many individual speaking skills to learn. I refer to it here as the Craft of Public Speaking.
The Natural Speaker
Just like there are natural athletes, there are natural public speakers. They often seem magical. Probably the most important factor is the ability to get in front of people without the fear the rest of us experience. They tend to be people who like being the center of attention. Therefore, they have effectively been training their public speaking craft for most of their lives.
Would you compare yourself to Michael Jordan? Don’t compare yourself to them.
A playbook for Public Speaking
If we consider public speaking as a craft and view it similarly to how we would a sport, we can break in down into a few components. We have the rules. Then we have specific skills that make up our ability to perform. We might also need to be comfortable with different styles. Then we have the psychology of ‘game day’, when the pressure is on.
Now comes the part that might be hard to swallow. Just like in sport, we can study to learn the rules and even pick up the premise of skills and styles. However, in order to really learn those skills; in order to know that style, we have to train. We have to practice with purpose. In sports we generally have a natural path to develop the psychology of the game and dealing with the pressure. We start off young with matches of little consequence an few onlookers. As we grow the external pressures grow. Public speaking tends to be sink or swim. This is where we believe our product, Virtual Orator, comes in: providing a platform for training and learning to deal with the pressure (fear!).
There are rules to public speaking. Often you are given some of the most important, e.g. how long should the talk be? You can find the rules in books, seminars, and blogs. The rules of public speaking are at times more like house rules in your favorite card game or board game, so make sure you know the rules where you are going to be presenting.
If you have to give your first talk tomorrow, time for a crash course in rules. Prepare your materials. Try to learn the rules. You might deliver a stellar presentations, but at least try not to break the rules. If you have more time, it’s still the place to start.
Just like in a sport, there are lots of skills to learn. They range from easy to very hard, from simple to complicated, from obvious to tricky, from general to specialized.
So where/how do we get these skills? Many skills are spoken about in books and blogs. Speaking Clubs are an excellent place to learn skills. They are typically arranged to provide you with the progression through skills. We also might watch others with informed eyes to pick things up.
In order to apply those skills though, we have to train them. This is particularly true due to the pressure of public speaking, which can easily make us forget everything. First, we try them out. To become proficient with them, we practice. We continue to hone and improve those skills. After we’ve mastered them, unless we use them a lot, we’ll probably still have to practice to maintain those skills, just like a professional athlete still practices basic skills.
How do we train? Traditionally finding the opportunities to train is the hard part (see this post about the topic). Just like with sports, early skill training can be done in practice and way from the “field”. Maybe we train in front of the mirror. Later we need real situations to train effectively. For that our options are speaking engagements, speaking clubs or a VR app like Virtual Orator.
Just like there are different styles of play, there are different styles of public speaking. Speaking styles for a profession conference are quite different to speaking at your local Rotary club. Styles differ greatly between a research conference, a technical conference, and a business conference. Some basic skills transfer over. Others simply don’t work in other styles.
The public speaking style you choose to use might be related to the setting, but also just could be due to your goals or personal preferences.
Speaking clubs often put a lot of work into different styles and are a good place to learn. You can pick up tips and hits on various websites, though rarely do they do enough to explain what style they are talking about.
Psychology of Public Speaking
Sports Psychology is an entire field. It is also the component with which most of have never directly dealt. The psychology of public speaking is material for multiple posts, but not as well understood as sport psychology. The short of it is, that for almost every person on this planet, public speaking causes fear responses. Either the size of the audience or the perceived importance (I’ll die!) of the presentation make it stressful.
The ideal way for us to deal with this is just like in sports, we start young with public speaking engagements. As we progress over years, the speaking engagements get bigger and more important. By the time we step on a stage with 100s or 1000s of people we are better prepared. Even for athletes, the first time in a big stadium elicits similar responses.
Interestingly this is also roughly the manner psychologists use for helping people overcome their fears. You have to confront that which you fear, but in a controlled manner so the fear is manageable. Overtime the fear lessons, we fear it less and become better at dealing with it. So we start out with small friendly groups in a places that feel familiar to us, and progress until we can step into the spotlights of a large hall.
Crafting public speaking
Hopefully by now you are seeing public speaking in a different light. Think about those first two scenarios. Are they different or essentially the same? I hope I’ve convinced you that they are more alike than different.
I hope you also have a different understanding of what it takes to become good at public speaking. Just like any sport, if you want to be good at the craft of public speaking you need to train. You are going to have to speak in front of a public.
Finally, I hope you have a sense of a playbook for getting from whatever level of speaker you are now into higher leagues.
Dr. Blom is a long time researcher in the VR field. He is the founder of Virtual Human Technologies, which applies VR and avatar technologies to human problems and helping better understand people. Virtual Orator exists largely because Dr. Blom wishes he had had such a tool instead of the 'trail by fire' he went through learning to speak in public.