I had a cooking teacher at high school who told us that “good cooks are born, not made” which left me confused about why she had decided to become a cooking teacher!
This is a perfect illustration of a ‘fixed mindset’ described by Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. A person with a fixed mindset believes that qualities such as intelligence and talent are innate and can’t be developed. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset has a thirst for learning, loves a challenge, and believes that they can improve by commitment and hard work. Carol’s research demonstrates that having a growth mindset is a better predictor of success than natural talent.
You may have heard the expression 's/he has the gift of the gab' meaning someone is naturally good at talking. But this reflects a fixed mindset towards verbal communication and public speaking. While some people probably do have natural talents in this area, it is possible for anyone to become a strong public speaker.
Let’s examine two things that I hear frequently:
“I am not good at thinking on my feet.”
I can relate to this. I always prefer time to prepare. But when I hear people say this I ask, “how much time have you spent developing the ability to think on your feet?”. Of course, they haven’t spent any time because they don’t know how, or more importantly it has never occurred to them that this is something you could get better at by practice.
Any experienced Toastmaster will tell you that practicing impromptu speaking can improve your ability to think on your feet. You learn strategies like how to take a moment to think before answering, or how to turn the question to your advantage! Also, frequent practice reduces the nerves and helps you think more clearly. Part of the problem when ‘thinking on our feet’ is that nervousness makes us go blank.
There is another point worth noting. People who seem to be very good at thinking on their feet are probably more prepared than you think. They may have spent time predicting and practicing answers to challenging questions, or they could be repeating material that they are very familiar with. As Winston Churchill famously said, “I am just preparing my impromptu remarks.”
“I know I will never be a great speaker but I just want to be less nervous”
This is not as bad, because becoming less nervous is a good initial goal. However; you are limiting yourself by stopping there. Also, public speaking nerves are likely to return unless you keep practicing and so the idea that you have achieved your goal and can stop is unrealistic. I encourage my clients to ‘think small’ about the progress they can make in eight weeks but ‘think big’ about how good they could eventually become.
So, if a you need a growth mindset to get better at public speaking, how do you go about developing it? Follow these five tips.
1. Learn good technique.
Public speaking requires competence and confidence. The great thing is that these are mutually reinforcing. If you spend time becoming more competent it will help build your confidence.
2. Study great public speakers
This is an extension of the previous point. One way of learning good technique is by observing what other speakers do. The TED platform is a great place to start. There is even a TED playlist on how to make a great presentation.
3. Find a safe place to practice
Improving your presentation skills requires doing it! By practicing in front of a friendly audience, such as at a public speaking course or a Toastmasters club, your confidence will grow which will improve your performance.
4. Welcome and apply feedback
People with a growth mindset welcome feedback as it helps them improve while people with a fixed mindset tend to interpret feedback as criticism. Hopefully the feedback you receive will be couched in a sensitive and constructive way, but even it is not, learn to appreciate it for what you could learn. This doesn’t mean that all feedback is useful but that you should get used to reviewing feedback and deciding what you will take on board.
5. Refrain from comparing yourself with anyone else.
This is important. Much of our fear of public speaking comes from comparing ourselves unfavourably with others. But speakers you perceive to be better are probably more experienced. And even if they have more natural talent that could mean that you just have to work a bit harder. Going back to Winston Churchill, he was apparently not a natural orator. He spent many hours preparing his speeches and also had some spectacular failures. Of course, he is not remembered for these! If you need any more convincing read this great article by Carine Gallo – a student of Steve Jobs presentations and author several books including ‘Talk Like TED’.
Written by Catherine Syme
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.