I wish I’d known earlier.
My very first experience in communicating-in-front-of-others was not great. I was around 9 years old and asked to present on a project I’d been working on. I had no idea how to prepare. When it came to addressing the class, full script in hand, I also had no idea how to conduct myself. I lost my bearings in less time than it took to stand up. I scanned ahead in the script, yet the words I had written earlier now sounded completely irrelevant. I couldn’t say them. Instead I mumbled some spontaneous thoughts and in the direction of a magazine photograph. A photograph of a favela dwelling in Brazil that I had stuck up on the board. My reaction was to just label off the meagre furnishings that this impoverished family could call their own. There was laughter (at me). The teacher’s only remark was the final straw into my shock-wobble confidence: “What are you talking about?”
The second experience came shortly after. Luckily, I could enjoy this growth-mindset episode from the comfort of my seat. “What’s 12 x 25?” my Maths teacher asked the class. He swung around to me. Heartbeat quickens. Not naturally strong at mental arithmetic, I had at least learned to take a pause before responding. My teacher however, broke the pause ahead of me. “The answer’s not on the ceiling!” He climbed on a chair and chalked the answer on the spot I’d been looking at. “Now it is! Perhaps you can read it out, if you’re not able to calculate it yourself!”
But it was experience#3 that really flummoxed me. Much later in life, and halfway through a ‘presentation training’ I was interrupted and advised to raise my voice to sound more authoritative. I tried to heed the advice, but immediately felt ridiculous. The debrief then further advised me to try to sound more natural when speaking loudly.
Since my education in 1970s Britain, we have at least developed more student-centric, and dare I say, realistic, approaches to nurturing communication skills.
For ‘Experience#1’, you may well agree that scripts are indeed double-edged. You can stay content-perfect for sure, yet scripts are painful for both speakers and listeners. A speaker, with the best will in the world, will struggle to naturalise the sound of speaking from a script.
But for ‘Experience#2’, what you do think? You may have initially assumed that I wasn’t looking at the ceiling at all. You’re right. I wasn’t. I was looking inside my head. I was averting my gaze to help me think properly. I had gone into ‘thinking-calculation mode’, a cognitive modality that would help me compute a response to the question. Yet very few people are aware of the linkage between eye movement, memory recall and communication.
I’m fascinated by how we learn about other biological systems, from respiratory to reproductive, yet when it comes to the human communication system, many of us do not know our inputs from our outputs. We are also obsessed with studying and teaching the written word, yet when it comes to the spoken word, we are often speech-less. The result? Through life, we assume that speech is just the written word in a loud voice.
Talking is a common physical phenomenon, yet communicating effectively is a complex skill set. The relationship between speech pacing, eye movement and voice pitch is complex, but it’s not complicated. It’s straightforward to explain. And so is a bottom-up skills building approach, that helps us all avoid a checklist of prescriptive rules, and trying to multi-task with your words, voice and hands all at the same time.
After many years spent in research, observation, and devising frameworks for effective communication, I am moving further away from the rigid prescriptions of public speech and presentation that legacy training modules have insisted on.
I am firmly in favour of the agile communicator. And a set of principles around listener-centric communication that can be flexed no matter what speaking environment you find yourself in.
Good communication learning frameworks help you understand how to be a good listener, just as much as a good speaker. They help you interpret the ‘why’ of the speaking pace of others and of the upward glance of your listener as they contemplate your words.
Good communication learning frameworks are realistic. Formal speech making is something that may have been necessary in the past, when the perception of authority was often enough to compel the crowds to ‘go with their leader’. Yet I believe today’s audiences are more receptive to the agile, authentic communicator as the genuine leader.
Reading from scripts whilst attempting to maintain constant eye contact with your audiences, never worked anyway.