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Why Public Speaking Training is a Waste of Your Time

public speaking Apr 13, 2021


I know: you might - at first - be scandalized by the title.  Possible reasons are 

a) the received wisdom of the Western world is that public speaking (and concomitant training) is “good” and “desirable” and “necessary;

b) you know a bit about my background, and wonder if I’ve flipped my lid.

Fairly recent I came across an old article on called “Confessions of a Former Public Speaking Trainer: Don’t Waste Your Money”.  At first, I balked.  As I read through Kristi Hedges’ piece, I particularly disliked the sentence: “but you could have nearly the same information (and save thousands of dollars) from reading a presentation skills book on your own and taping yourself with a Webcam.” 

I’ve recently published pieces Gift of the Gab and How to Own the Room on the challenges of using books alone as a tool for learning to speak. 

While I DO agree with the utility of recording yourself as a tool for analysis and review (and published a piece on this just last week, I do NOT think that having a book open, then recording yourself and “matching” the two together is particularly helpful.

My reason is straightforward: most books aren’t written in a way that they both educate and support would-be learners with the explanations and exercises, not to mention benchmarks, that a person would potentially need or use in their application.  Frankly, most people’s listening and observation skills aren’t really up to the task.  Further, the anxiety of “am I doing it right?” can undermine gains.

“But D,” you say, “just last week you were advocating using recordings!”

Yes, yes I was.  Notice, however, that my suggestion was NOT for the purpose of “marking” yourself against anything.  MY advice was born of the experience that people do not have a comfortable relationship with their voices, and that the version of ‘exposure therapy’ that listening to a recording offers is useful in connecting your vocal reality with your vocal identity.

I also suggested that if you noticed things you wanted to change, you could work with this type of platform to provide yourself the observation/feedback required to manage deeper learning.  I did NOT offer a list of “what to do.”

Hedges goes on to say, “speaker training is helpful - if you want to be a professional speaker.” I really choked on that one.  

But then I read a bit further: “you’re not training to be perfect orators who can mesmerize a’re trying to develop presence to connect with and inspire build trust and credibility…[to] be clear and energetic….not...from perfect, robotic gestures and words with lyrical cadence.”  

Ahhhhhh.  I get it now.

No, I don’t mean I had an epiphany about the profundity of her statement.  I mean that I finally grasped her frame of reference.

What I Realized

You see, I realized in that moment that Ms Hedges and I have a fundamentally different understanding of what is meant by “public speaking training”.  In fairness to her, I’d venture that many (if not most) people do think of public speaking training from this perspective.  

Ms Hedges is referring to the idea that public speaking is formulaic: that is, there is a “right way” and a “wrong way”, and that anything you are taught (and manage to learn and apply) will be artificial, inauthentic and - in the end - forgettable.

And SHE’S RIGHT.  98% of “public speaking coaches” do exactly this - provide a structured model where there are do’s and don'ts, and you simply overlay these elements on your speaking task. 

Doing a pitch?  Do this.  Giving a TEDTalk? Do that.  Interviewing for a new job?  Here’s the ‘correct approach’.  Speaking to your new team?  Don’t do that.  Basically, it’s like a primer checklist, with a human “coach/trainer” attached.

You get the idea.

If a speaker (whether they’re the leader or not) can manage to remember all these things, whilst also juggling the balls of their content messaging, really connecting with their audience (by observation, listening, feeling) AND managing any anxiety….then DAMN.

AND….I have to give a shout out to the connection between effort, learning, and payout.  LOTS of people undertake public speaking training (whether it’s a class or a high-end executive coach or something in-between), and yes, that training is formulaic, but the problem (before any of the formula complaints) is that there isn’t any real commitment to change.  Coaches and trainers aren’t (I’m sad to say) magicians.  Many people think they want change or to learn something new, but they don’t - not really.  The effort doesn’t seem worth the reward, especially when it’s attached to something someone else says is “best” (we’re like children, to be honest).

You must be ready to change, and you must find someone who is just as gifted, talented and skilled at transformation as they are technique.  

Truth is, that’s simply not what happens most times.  Most times you get someone who is either a mindset coach OR a public speaking technician.

When you undertake training that is only mindset-focused, you may well have reduced anxiety, increased confidence, increased audience connection and engagement.  All good things.  But if you still don’t know how to connect your face, voice, body, emotions, eyes, words, and energy, your message may be sacrificed (this is especially true if you think that “talking confidently” = “messaging clearly”).

When you undertake public speaking training that is task-based and technique-heavy, you’re never going to be a great speaker, either.   You may be great at coordinating gestures and inflecting your voice and strategically pausing, but you mostly come off as an automaton.  You might even find you’re worse than when you began (ever watched some of the Toastmasters presenters?  I applaud the concept; I don’t admire the execution in many cases).

So WHY Do People Hire Public Speaking Trainers (or Take Public Speaking Classes?)

It’s pretty clear that people enroll in or hire support because of a perceived need.  That ‘need’ is usually governed by something marketers call a ‘pain point’ - something that causes a problem.  The theory is that, when that ‘pain point’ becomes persistent and overwhelms your defences, you will act.  

By this theory, enrolling or hiring is a response to that pain point.  What pain point?  You rightly ask.

In my experience, there’s a fairly wide set of potentials, including:

  • public speaking anxiety
  • perceived skills deficit
  • pressure from external sources (for instance, work-related)

So, by pursuing some sort of educational assistance, the idea is that the pain point will be soothed...or even cured.

According to Hedges, the cure is worse than the disease, because the medicine is more band-aid than bone-setting.  Not long after taking the ‘cure’, the disease returns, and the patient is once again seeking treatment.

If this is the case, then WHY do people continue to enrol in courses, buy books, hire coaches, watch YouTube videos, and so on?  Are we just overly hopeful?  Are the teachers/coaches/presenters not helpful?

This takes us right back to Hedges’ perspective: it’s a waste of money  (although I must take exception to the suggestion to get a book and use it, while at the same time pooh-poohing the use of such prescriptive resources - might have something to do with her promoting her book…).

As mentioned earlier, she’s right, if you define public speaking training/coaching as a “do this, don’t do that” enterprise, then the only way that this type of learning will well and truly stick is if you get ahold of your learners at a very young age.  So, for instance, in my many years of working with youth, I frequently started work with my students at 5 years old, and they would continue for five to 12 years.  The speakers that come out of that process are truly world-class.  

“BUT!!” I hear you shrieking, “that’s prescriptive!!  You’re telling these youngsters what to do!!  You’re moulding their speaking personalities for a lifetime!!!” (cue the righteous indignation).

And you’d be ABSOLUTELY RIGHT -  if that’s how I actually did the work.

Happily for the children - and for you - that’s NOT how I work.  My particular approach builds confidence, competence, creativity, ownership and originality, and all while helping the learner discover (and use) their own unique style of speaking.  Interestingly, this is how I’ve ALWAYS done the work, over nearly 30 years.  Frankly, it was - in the early days - a ‘found’ approach.  I didn’t know any  better, so I simply did what seemed to make the most sense.  

As the years have passed, and the depth and breadth of my training, experience and expertise has been built and honed, I’ve taken what is useful to those I coach and train, always considering what will best serve the unique developmental needs and speaking styles of those I work with.

Could I simply replicate my style? 

Sure.  Definitely.  And you’d be damn good.

But you wouldn’t be you.  You’d know it, I’d know it, and your audience would (at a minimum) sense it.  You’d always look to me for the answers to “how to do it right” instead of looking within yourself for your own answers that serve your own wants, needs, expectations, hopes, strengths and challenges.

What you get - after whatever period of time I work with a person - is a person who is grounded, authentic, totally comfortable and in control of themselves and their message, no matter the situation.

Imagine having THAT when you were 13.  

I know.  It would’ve been amazing.  These kids ARE amazing.

But you’re not 5 or 12 or 19 or any of those relatively-formative ages, are you?  Does that mean there’s no hope for you?

Far from it.  It DOES mean, however, that there is DIFFERENT hope for you, one based on mindset, commitment, and the desire to truly connect you and your message to your listeners.

If You’re SERIOUS About Finding Your Voice...Here’s What to Do (How to Hire a Coach and/or Trainer)

We’ve agreed that I agree with Kristi in principle - public speaking ‘formulas’ are a waste of your time and money (as are trainers that operate in a rule-bound model, though I’m sure they’re lovely people).  

Where we don’t agree is on the usefulness of public speaking training.  Because she uses ‘public speaking training’ to be synonymous with a right/wrong model, she paints all those offering public speaking training with the same brush - the HELL NO/WASTE OF MONEY brush.

And IF all public speaking trainers and coaches were operating from the same theoretical and practical foundation, I would agree.

However, we’ve established that there IS a small percentage that works in the space between just the presence/authenticity space AND the prescriptive public speaking space.  If I was to have you look at my whiteboard, it might look like this:  

Basically, you’re seeking out someone who can occupy the space where mindset meets awareness meets skill - THAT’S where you’ll find the magic of authentic, powerful, original, and NATURAL speaking.  Why?  Because it will be you, built up in confidence, connection, and creativity, coupled with whichever technical bits you need to adjust to make the most of YOUR own speaking style and voice.  

So, here’s what to look for:

  • Does the program allow for your own unique style development? (be careful on this, because most coaches/trainers will tell you it ask for examples!)
  • Will you be supported with the technical skills relevant to your unique needs? (again, ask for examples!)
  • Are the ways and means of learning respectful to your needs and preferences, and is the work based in the real world?  (examples, examples!)
  • Does the trainer/coach have training, credentials, qualifications, proof that they can and should be occupying this space with you (and taking your money AND influencing your perception of self)? (as unregulated industries, ANYONE can hang out their shingle and say they’re a coach or a public speaking trainer - do NOT simply believe what they tell you or put on their website for marketing - look for accreditations, educational credentials, etc., that point towards their commitment AND their capabilities)
  • Do they listen to you?  Do they understand you?

These five areas of inquiry will go a looooonnnnnnggg way towards finding an approach and a person who will help you become your most amazingly authentic speaking self, while also helping you unpack your thoughts, beliefs, stories, etc. (mindset) around public speaking and communication.  

So the next time you hear someone pooh-pooh a public speaking program OR a coach, listen carefully, ask some questions, think your own thoughts - it will serve you well!!

xoxo d

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