Public Speaking is all in your head, literally. You can come to this blog or 10,000 other blogs, web sites, books, videos and seminars to get a step by step formula to becoming a great speaker. Ultimately, you have to execute on what you learn.
This point applies to a wide variety of physical and mental skills, of course. Singing, playing a musical instrument, memory, learning, golf, pool, bowling, coding, video games, basketball, server administration, and tennis all have a wide variety of instructional videos, classes, blogs, web site, forums, and gurus. Some people are a "natural" and learn these skills on their own, while others may be seminar "junkies" and hunt and eat every single morsel of knowledge they can find. For all these skills and many more, utimately your ability to do well is determined in very large measure by what is going on in your own head.
Several years back, I played a great deal of tennis. I found that I could do extremely well in practice, and just as poorly in a real match. I was desperate to understand why, and read many books and watched many videos on how to perform each stroke. While I did learn several new ways to hit a forehand or a serve, my results actually got worse. I was cursed with too much knowledge.
Long before I came across "Made to Stick" and the concept of the "Curse of Knowledge", I read a fantastic book that has lessons that apply both to tennis and public speaking. That book is "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey.
I too admit to overreaching as a new pro, but one day when I was in a relaxed mood I began saying less and noticing more. To my surprise, errors that I saw but didn’t mention were correcting themselves without the student ever knowing he had made them. How were the changes happening? Though I found this interesting, it was little hard on my ego, which didn’t quite see how it was going to get its due credit for the improvements being made. It was an even greater blow when I realized that sometimes my verbal instructions seemed to decrease the probability of the desired correction occurring.
All teaching pro’s know what I am talking about. They all have students like one of mine named Dorothy. I would give Dorothy a gentle, low-pressured instruction like, "Why don’t you try lifting the follow through up from your waist to the level of your shoulder? The topspin will keep the ball in the court."? Sure enough, Dorothy would try hard to follow my instructions.The muscles would tense around her mouth; her eyebrows would set in a determined frown;the muscles in her forearm would tighten, making fluidity impossible; and the follow through would end only a few inches higher.At this point, the stock response of the patient pro is, "That’s better, Dorothy, but relax, don’t try so hard!" The advice is good far as it goes, but Dorothy does not understand how to "relax" while also trying hard to hit the ball correctly. (from page 6)
The lessons from "The Inner Game of Tennis" for speaking apply both to learning about public speaking AND to the whatever technical topic you are speaking about when in front of the room. I recall when I first began speaking that I was told by a co-worker to never put my hands in my pockets. When I asked "What do I do with my hands?" The answer came back "Just gesture."
At the time, I had no idea how to "just gesture". In my post "But This is a Technical Presentation!" you can see an example where a technical speaker assumes that more text and information is better in a technical presentation. As Gallwey illustrates in this next excerpt, often more instruction leads to worst results.
Why should Dorothy – or you or I – experience an awkward tightening when performing a desired action which is not physically difficult? What happens inside the head between the time the instruction is given and the swing is complete? The first glimmer of an answer to this key question came to me at a moment of rare insight after a lesson with Dorothy: "Whatever’s going on in her head, it’s too damn much! She’s try so hard to swing the racket the way I told her that she can’t focus on the ball" Then and there, I promised myself I would cut down on the quantity of verbal instructions.
My next lesson that day was with a beginner named Paul who had never held a racket. I was determined to show him how to play using as few instructions as possible.; I’d try to keep his mind uncluttered and see if it made a difference. So I started by telling Paul I was trying something new: I was going to skip entirely my usual explanations to beginnings players about the proper grip, stroke, and footwork for the basic forehand. Instead, I was going to hit ten forehands myself, and I wanted him to watch carefully, not thinking about what I was doing, but simply trying to grasp a visual image of the forehand. He was to repeat the image in his mind, several times then just let his body imitate. After I had hit ten forehands, Paul imagined himself doing the same. Then, as I put the racket into his hand, sliding it into the correct grip, he said to me, "I noticed that the first thing you did was move your feet." I replied with a noncommital grunt and asked him to let his body imitate the forehand as well as it could. He dropped the ball, , took a perfect backswing, swung forward, racket level, and with natural fluidity ended the swing at shoulder height , perfect for his first attempt! But wait, his feet;they hadn’t moved an inch from the perfect ready position he had assumed before taking his racket back. They were nailed to the court! I pointed to them and Paul said, " Oh yeah, I forgot about them !" The one element of the stroke Paul had tried to remember was the one thing he didn’t do! Everything else had been absorbed and reproduced without a word being uttered or an instruction being given!
I was beginning to learn what all the good pros and students of tennis must learn; that images are better than words, showing is better than telling, too much instruction worse than none, and that trying often produces negative results.One question perplexed me: What’s wrong with trying? What does it mean to try to hard? (from pages 6-7)
There are some fantastic nuggets of knowledge in this except that led to much of the things I have learned about speaking. "Images are better than words" (for example) is consistent with the research of Richard Mayer. In Chapter Six (Changing Habits) Gallwey gives the Steps to "The Inner Game Way of Learning".
- Observe Existing behavior Non-Judgementally.
- Picture Desired Outcome.
- Let it happen!
- Nonjudgemental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning
You can see much of this advise in the Six Rs of Communication.
- Result – this is very similar to Picture the Desired Outcome.
- Response – Observe Existing Behavior
- Reflect - Gallwey emphasizes "non-judgemental" observation that isn’t emotional or critical.
- Range -
- Repeatable - Throughout his book, Gallwey stress the concept that "Inner Game" is more about your overall mental process than it is about drilling on specific skills.
"The Inner Game of Tennis" is a fantastic book for tennis and for any other skill. Gallwey has other books on Golf, Skiing, Music, and work. I highly recommend his approach.