Saturday, October 22, 2011

Getting worse with practice: blame Toastmasters, complacency, or perfectionism?

On August 17th, at The Science Talent Project blog, Eric-Wubbo Lamejier posted on Teaching to the Test and the Terrible Toastmasters - or: when subgoals strike back. He described and then claimed he could explain:

“...the phenomenon of public speaking clubs that make people speak worse with practice.”

He said that he’d also observed and also was baffled by:

“...the phenomenon that quite some of the 'champion' speakers gave worse speeches than people giving their very first speech.”

I don’t think that is surprising at all. People come to Toastmasters for a variety of reasons. Some come mainly to get over their fear of public speaking, so their first speeches are not good. Others seek a place to improve their speaking and to practice their business presentations. One woman already had written three books. Predictably she gave a wonderful first speech. People arrive at Toastmasters with a wide variety of backgrounds. In the club I belonged to the age range was from about 25 to 75 and the education level ranged from high school to PhDs. (One former president even is a veterinarian with an MBA).

Dr. Lameijer concluded that the Achilles heel for Toastmasters was speech contests, particularly the judging process for them. He states that:

“...the uniform jurying process tends to keep people focusing on process goals (ability to use diverse body language) even if they have mastered those enough already, and should focus on outcome goals (such as inspiring or persuading people) instead. Without outcome goals to tweak the learning process, skills become ritualistic and detatched from the original goals.”

The Judge’s Guide for the International Speech Contest can be summarized as follows:

Speech Development - 20% (structure, organization, support material)
Effectiveness - 15% (achievement of purpose, interest, reception)
Speech Value - 15% (ideas, logic, original thought)

Physical - 10% (appearance, body language, speaking area)
Voice - 10% (flexibility, volume)
Manner - 10% (directness, assurance, enthusiasm)

Appropriateness - 10% (to speech purpose and audience)
Correctness - 10% (grammar, pronunciation, word selection)

Note that half are about content - outcome goals, and not just process goals (delivery and language).

Eric’s description of how body language is judged in contests claims:

“Actually, one side effect is that, because people get points for having body language, contestants tend to use body language whether it is appropriate or not; the same goes for vocal variety.”

This is nonsense, because the Judge’s Guide calls for effective body language and says that:

“Body language should support points through gestures, expressions, and body positioning.”

Speech contests are a pleasant, but minor part of Toastmasters. They occupy just two club meetings per year. For a club meeting twice a month there are 24 meetings per year, so only 8% are contests. I belonged to a club that met weekly, so only 4% of the meetings were for contests. That doesn’t seem like enough to account for people getting worse with practice.

I think that either complacency or perfectionism can account for some people getting worse with practice. Three years ago Chris Elliott blogged on Are You Getting Worse as a Speaker? He concluded:

“....that if you have stopped practicing as much, been resting on your laurels, and are getting too comfortable then you are getting worse.”

Earlier this year John Zimmer blogged about how (as shown above) Perfect Public Speaking is an Asymptote. All it really takes to get worse with practice is an obsessive level of perfectionism. It is futile to seek seek absolute perfection rather than excellence. Morton C. Orman discussed this problem in How to Conquer Public Speaking Fear, one of the most popular web articles on this type of anxiety. He noted that:

“....If you have the wrong focus (i.e., purpose), if you try to do too much, if you want everyone to applaud your every word, if you fear something bad might happen or you might make a minor mistake, then you can easily drive yourself crazy trying to overprepare your talk. In these instances, the more effort you put in, the worse you probably will do.”

This post is one of three dozen about Toastmasters. You can see them all here. Toastmasters celebrated its 87th anniversary today.

1 comment:

Eric-Wubbo Lameijer said...

Dear Dr. Garber,

thank you for pointing me towards this blogpost and your analysis. I suppose that Toastmasters may feel that I have given their club an unfair representation, which makes me grateful for you analyzing the situation calmly and clearly.

Reading your post, it strikes me that I may not have been clear enough at certain points myself. For example, I would barely call people who have written books on public speaking 'beginners'; when using the term, I did not mean beginning toastmasters, but beginning speakers, so people of 18-20 years of age (or older) without appreciable public speaking experience.

As for jurying, I unfortunately can only rely on my own observations of contest outcomes so far; I am aware that content should triumph other factors, in my experience it just seems the other way around. This may, of course, be due to wrong observations on my side. Scientifically speaking, one should probably however not only look at the official weights, but also to the standard deviation and interobserver variability of the scores; if 'content' for example, is judged similarly for all speeches, it would cease to be a deciding factor. However, only collection and numerical evaluation of jury forms could provide such data.

Briefly on your other remarks: while Toastmasters contests are rare, learning is in practice a function of time and attention; if large amounts of time or attention are spent on contests, it will affect performance disproportionately. For the rest I still stand by my hypothesis since eagerness to win competitions seemed, in my observation, a major factor in 'negative speechmanship growth', most non- or casually competing Toastmasters not really getting worse (though neither, in many cases, getting clearly better after the first few speeches). Perhaps, as you note, because the desire to make everyone laugh can be debilitating. For the rest, as Ericsson notes (Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 2006), skills deteriorate due to lack of practice or lack of interest in improvement. Though, with the wrong feedback, it's also possible to simply learn the wrong things (similar to some children being rewarded for whining). Also, indeed, overpreparation/overpractice may harm a speech, as performance can then get disconnected from your own interest and emotions.

Perhaps the most important lesson of both our posts is that one should never take growth as a public speaker for granted. Both the individual as (hopefully) his/her Toastmasters peers and mentors should be aware that experience does not equal practice, nor does practice equal excellence. Realization of these two core truths may, however, form the beginning of a path that leads to true speaking excellence, whether within or without Toastmasters.