Saturday, June 15, 2013

Learning public speaking isn’t any harder than learning to drive a car

It’s not any easier though. Try to remember back to when you started to drive. You didn’t learn to do it well in an hour, a day, a week, or even a month. At first it was pretty  scary.

There were a lot of different things you had to learn before you got comfortable behind the wheel. It seemed impossible that you’d ever be able to do them all smoothly and almost effortlessly. But that’s what eventually happened.

Speaking in public is the same. It takes a lot of study and practice. If you either join a Toastmasters club or take a college course, you’ll give enough speeches to start getting comfortable behind or in front of a lectern.

The basic Competent Communication manual in Toastmasters includes ten speeches, which are:

1. The Ice Breaker
2. Organize Your Speech
3. Get to the Point
4. How to Say It
5. Your Body Speaks
6. Vocal Variety
7. Research Your Topic
8. Get Comfortable with Visual Aids
9. Persuade with Power
10. Inspire Your Audience

Eventually you can learn to speak using notes, gesture and use vocal variety appropriately, use props or visual aids such as PowerPoint, and answer questions.

At age 16, in Pittsburgh, I took a driver’s education class held at summer school. They started out by showing us Signal 30, a gruesome half-hour documentary film made by the Ohio Highway Patrol. That title is radio code for a fatal traffic accident. The film demonstrated repeatedly that careless driving could kill yourself and others. In class we learned about traffic signs, road markings, and rules of the road.
We began by driving huge Plymouth Fury IIIs around a parking lot. First we learned to start the car, adjust the mirrors, buckle our seat belts, and then slowly drive a closed course marked by cones without knocking them all over. Then we got to turn right, and slowly drive up and down the back streets near the school.

Most of us struggled with parallel parking. I remember my instructor kept telling me to turn the wheel hand over hand. But, the school’s Plymouths all had power steering, so I could spin the wheel with just one finger. My dad’s Chevrolet didn’t have power steering though. So, I really learned to park by practicing in it.

We learned to watch for oncoming traffic before turning left. Gradually we learned to also stay aware of who was behind and beside us. Eventually we mastered narrower streets with traffic. Finally we were ready to try four-lane highways, and even freeways.

I passed the written exam for a driver’s license on my first try. Once we passed that hurdle, most of us didn’t pass the closed course road test on the first try.

On my first road test I was so nervous than when the examiner told me to make a right turn, I missed a warning sign for a railroad crossing without a gate. Instead of stopping, looking, and listening, I wound up stopped with the car centered over the railroad tracks. Oops. Signal 30! A week later I tried again and passed.

But, I didn’t stop learning after getting my license. That fall and winter other situations like fog, snow, and ice had to be mastered.

A decade later I bought a Honda Civic with a manual transmission. Then I had to learn how to use my right hand on the shift lever in coordination with my left foot on the clutch pedal, while also checking the speedometer. My early attempts at starting out uphill often led to either wheel-spinning or stalling-out, which amused my neighbors. However, with continued practice the processes involved in shifting got smooth and became unconscious.

I like the phrase clutch words rather than filler words because it suggests an analogy between public speaking and learning to drive a car. In speaking you also need to learn to smoothly shift - from one idea to the next.

The image of a student driver in Durham, North Carolina came from here

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