Public speaking: we all do it, but we’re not all good at it
“Communication is all about doing what feels natural… I have a style that works for me, and you should find your style as well.”
I’m over it. I can’t count the number of times I have heard some variation of the above phrase. It infuriates me every time. Why? Because it’s stupid. It’s lazy. It’s ignorant. And it’s pervasive.
Employees roll their eyes when you stand up to speak. Clients don’t buy from you. Industry conferences don’t ask you to join the panel (or invite you back). And yet- you continue doing the same thing.
You are not unique. I see it all the time, particularly among people who speak often. They become victims to what I call the “curse of the compliment.” In an audience of 1000, two people tell them the speech is great. That must mean everyone thinks they are great, right? Wrong. The speech sucked and they will never grow their business if they don’t improve. Good luck telling them that, though.
You might not be speaking in front of thousands, but you do presentations and public speaking, whether you like it or not. As Tony Jeary’s book articulates so well, “Life is a Series of Presentations.”
Don’t be a victim of “do what feels natural”
People approach communication in its various forms (meetings, presentations, interviews) unlike they approach any other activity. Like Happy Gilmore’s golf strategy- they do what feels natural. Unfortunately, this is not a movie. In real life, if you hit a golf ball like you are playing Hockey- you will be terrible. There is a right and wrong to golf. There are best practices and worst practices. Golf is predictable. If you have a bad golf swing (Charles Barkley notwithstanding), you will be a bad golfer.
And so it goes with communication. Don’t be a victim of the “do what feels natural” lie. I offer you a few truths to combat this lie:
- Great communication is not ‘natural.’ As long as you believe that the skills that create influence, build rapport, and move audiences are born into your genetics, you will have no reason to actively work to improve your performance. Belief in what I call the birth myth is the surest route to your stagnation.
Any time you think that you can’t improve- consider Bill Clinton. Lauded as one of the great rhetors of the last 30 years, he was heckled and had his mic turned off during his first speech in front of a national audience (DNC- 1988).
- Communication habits develop over time. The way each person communicates in a given scenario is the result of past feedback they have received. Unfortunately, we are often given bad feedback that leads us to adopt bad habits- demonstrations of aggression, fear, or indifference . At some point, typically when we are young, we had an experience that taught us that such a strategy provided our best chance to deliver the results we sought (safety, anonymity, control, power). Over time, these behaviors became habits. These habits became identity forming.
- We can change our behaviors. We are not stuck in the communication patterns of our past. But we are only able to change if we separate our communication strategies from who we are as people. We must think of communication like we think of golf, not like we think of our personality.
Changing long-rooted bad habits takes two elements:
- Knowledge: become aware of how you are perceived. Identify key areas that limit you (posture, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, verbal padding, voice, message clarity, etc.).
- Practice: actively work to improve. Habits that have taken years to develop don’t go away over night, but they can go away over time.
My question for you is this: are you willing to take the time to learn how you are perceived in your communication habits? Are you willing to do the work to change it?