Public speaking for beginners: practice, belief and ability

Today let’s think about public speaking for beginners. Practice, belief and ability: how do they work when you’re learning something new?

Learner drive red L plate against black tarmac. Referring to public speaking for beginners: practice, belief and ability
Public Speaking for Beginners: Practice, Belief and Ability

We all know the uncertainty and challenges which can kick in when we try something new. I bet if you think for a moment, something you’ve attempted in the past few years will come up for you.

It can be scary to try something different, can’t it? Our sense of self can take a knock as we’re pushed off-centre. Negative self-talk usually kicks in at times. And in something like public speaking particularly, our ‘social mask’ (what we wear to get through the day at work or socially, to conform to other people’s expectations) is stripped away. This leaves us vulnerable and exposed.

As a presentation skills coach and trainer, I’m a big believer in regularly putting myself in this position, of trying something new. Even though I still vividly remember how it felt to struggle with public speaking, it’s still good to test myself.

If I didn’t do this, it would be harder to truly understand my clients and put myself in their shoes. Their uncertainty around new goals and hopes for something different, and often their fear around public speaking.

And I was reminded – in full force – of the challenges facing an adult learner when they try something well out of their comfort zone, when I enrolled for adult swimming lessons!

I’ve divided my thoughts for you into three separate areas: all of them talking about our mindset and attitudes as we test new skills – or lack of them.

First I’ll give you some background so you can understand the swimming skills gap and how it might relate to you.

Background: swimming as a child

When I was growing up in Edinburgh, I learnt – supposedly – to swim in the local indoor pool. Scottish weather doesn’t exactly invite you into cold water! I was physically timid and shy…and I was seriously afraid of the deep end.

A whole series of deep-end lessons which involved repeatedly jumping in, while my stern, heavy-set teacher Mrs Grassock held one end of a long pole and I clutched the other, did very little to improve my confidence. I dreaded them. Getting over your fears by “jumping in the deep-end” literally didn’t work for me!

And so that how swimming stayed for me. I remained weak and timid, head sticking out of the water

Belief practice and ability, dog having first swim
Dog having its first uncertain swim

like a dog – in Australia that’s not a great look – right up until my mid forties, when I decided to learn properly and hired a teacher for private lessons.

Swimming as an adult…

As I went through the first few lessons I was reminded of how tricky it can be to try new things as an adult. I had no idea what to do with various parts of my body. Basically I felt really uncomfortable, I’m sure I looked uncomfortable, and I sometimes got incredibly frustrated. Only rarely did I achieve any sense of flow through the water. The rest of it was pretty much flailing – in a public pool, surrounded by little kids and their watchful parents.

Keeping a sense of humour helps a lot at these times 🙂

So how does this story help you?

When I do public speaking for beginners, practice, belief and ability nearly always come up:

1.   Practice.

How do you feel about practising, and getting frustrated, and making mistakes?

If you’re like most adults, you’re used to feeling relatively – or totally – competent and ‘performing’ well at your task, job or career. You’re usually comfortable and embedded enough in your systems and routines to feel ‘unconscious competence’.

Do you know the model, the four stages of competence? You may well do; now often used in schools too:

  1. Unconscious incompetence (we don’t know what we don’t know)
  2. Conscious incompetence (we become aware of what we don’t know)
  3. Conscious competence (we consciously learn what to do and focus as we’re doing it)
  4. Unconscious competence (we can now do what we’ve learned without thinking about it)

Does this resonate with you? If you’ve learned how to drive a car for example, this model will make sense.

But as we get older, learning something new can be tough, because it involves getting messy. Potential vulnerability too, as we ‘expose’ our flailing (like me in the pool, surrounded by kids and watched by their parents). We feel safer, and more certain, staying in ‘performer’ mode. But to improve your public speaking, you have to be willing to go through a period where you feel uncertain. It might be incredibly brief, or not that challenging at all. But if you don’t go there, you probably won’t improve.

So what’s really important is to have a learner mindset, not performer. I’ve worked with clients who have such high expectations of themselves to ‘perform’ as they learn. They get so tangled up in their own frustration and upset, it makes testing new ideas really difficult for them. If you’re one of those people, remembering to focus on a learning mindset and being self-compassionate will really help.

I’m not saying this is easy, mind you! But it will help.

2.   Belief.

This is another major theme and mindset worth looking at. Do you realise that it actually doesn’t matter at the start if you believe in yourself or not?

As long as you’re willing to give new ideas a go, take action and persist, you’ll learn…and then you’ll start to believe. If instead you think that if you just believed more in yourself you’d be ready to confront your fears – this can stop you dead from moving ahead (in any area of life).

Think about this: the fact that you doubt yourself doesn’t stop you from wanting to learn. And it doesn’t need to stop you going through the learning process. It just takes guts to start, and probably some support to push through the resistance.

3.   Ability.

You think you need some natural aptitude to begin with, or you’re a hopeless case.

Again, like needing initial belief, not true. You can start out being pretty awful and improve rapidly. These are learnable skills, I promise.

For example, Winston Churchill was known as one the 20th century’s greatest orators; yet he started out with a speech impediment, and couldn’t do impromptu speaking at all. He learned through writing his speeches out and delivering them in front of a mirror.

I was appalling – and I now speak in front of others for a living. (And no, I’m not comparing myself to Winston Churchill in any way!)

If you truly ‘get’ this, then you understand that your goals are about what you want to communicate through your speaking, both for your audience and for yourself.

You find a safe group to work with, you learn what to do, and you practise. Let me repeat for emphasis: these are learnable skills.

Final thoughts

I gave up swimming lessons in the end…and it’s still an effort to co-ordinate my freestyle, crawl stroke without sinking into the water like a tug boat! This is disappointing, when my goal is always one of gliding, hovercraft-like, along the surface. (I can dream!) But I persisted for 18 months, and still hold my hovercraft intention when I go swimming. I’m not super-comfortable, but I’ve improved a lot: I even have moments of joy where I am gliding through the water. I can also hang around in deep water now without panicky thrashing, which for me is a big achievement.

So, public speaking for beginners: practice, belief and ability. Hopefully you’ve gained some new ideas about one or more of these themes.

They can make all the difference. 

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