To gain confidence, give up control


In my public speaking courses, we are just finishing the first round of “speeches.” (I put it in quotation marks because they’re really get-on-your-feet exercises.) I can already see a key difference among many of them.

There are two kinds of speakers: drivers and sailors. (There are two kinds of people: those who put everyone into two categories, and those who don’t. But that’s another post.) Drivers may or may not know where they’re going, but they try to steer everything exactly where they want to go. Sailors, likewise, may or may not know where they’re going, but they’re comfortable adapting to constantly changing conditions.

If a driver knows the desired outcome of his speech (and he should), he may try to plan out every single word he will say. He will certainly attempt to make the speech come out exactly as he planned. That can actually work–I’ve known professional speakers who wrote out their speeches, memorized it, and rehearsed it for weeks until they had mastered every nuance of delivery so that it sounded impassioned and had the desired impact every step. If you deliver the same material to every audience, this can be effective, but it’s a lot of work. In essence, you’re not speaking, you are performing.

These are college students, though, who lack the actor’s skill, and who definitely do not have the time for that sort of work. As a result, they wind up reading their speeches so they have little or no eye contact (or superficial, artificial eye contact) and mechanical or wooden deliveries. (The real reason your parents read to you when you were three years old wasn’t to teach you to read; it was to put you to sleep.) If they lose their place, they will repeat themselves, or get flustered and sometimes lose it altogether.

On the other hand, a sailor who knows the desired outcome of her speech will constantly adapt to whatever the audience is doing, and what feels right in the moment. She will prepare, and she will rehearse, but it is for getting familiar with the ideas and the material, not to set the wording. The delivery generally sounds fresh and conversational, because it is. The danger lies in rambling or fooling herself that she “does better” when she doesn’t prepare. But with proper preparation, she will have more impact than the driver, and with less effort.

There are many practical differences between the two, but it’s almost ironic that the sailor tends to be more confident. The driver without hours of rehearsal leading to complete mastery knows how easily everything could fall apart if he forgets something, worries about losing his manuscript, and frets about the audience that might not react properly (the audience didn’t get their copy of the script). The sailor, on the other hand, knows that she has the ability to respond to whatever crops up.

Both can be confident, of course. But given the realities and time demands of life, which would you rather be?

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.