Presentation Skills

Is Public Speaking Training a Waste of Time and Money?

“Public speaking training is a waste of time and money!”

That’s the message of a Forbes article that a friend of mine shared a with me recently. While the message is hard-hitting, it provoked thoughts that I’ve been contemplating for a long time. As a professional speaker, and having trained and coached senior executives and professionals down the chain in public speaking for the past 8 years. I’ll like to offer my personal take on this, and offer five points to take note of.

1)   Starting Out in Public Speaking

When I started out my journey as a trainer 10 years ago, my boss was about to fire me from my job as an in-house trainer. I was suffering intense stage fright whenever I speak. That was when I discovered Toastmasters, which gave me a safe space to practice, and constructive feedback to improve. As a novice speaker, I was like a sponge and soaked up all the feedback. I’ve learned lots of useful techniques like staging (where to stand), power posing (how to stand) and how to employ gestures. I have also learned the basics of how to craft a message. Every master was once a disaster, and so everyone’s got to start somewhere. If you want to get started and overcome your fear of public speaking, join a platform like the Toastmasters.

2)   Invest in Sharpening your Speaking Skills

In order to make the next leap, I invested tens of thousands of dollars to learn from some of the top speakers in the world, Blair Singer, Joel Bauer, T-Harv Eker, Andy Harrington. I also learned NLP so that I can improve on language and the psychology of persuasion. Whenever you’re trying to learn something, you learn by observing and mimicking. Just like a suit, you try it on for fit, you keep what works and discard what doesn’t. If you want to improve beyond the basics, you’ve got to be prepared to invest and take risks experimenting.

3)   Body Language is Over-rated

When I ask people I coach on what they’ll like to improve on, I always hear them say “body language”. How do I appear more powerful as a speaker? There is a major flaw in this thinking – that you can fake it until you make it. I cringe whenever I see speakers speak with their hands uncomfortably positioned to form an upward pointing V-shape all the time. They must have learned it somewhere. It surely cannot be natural!

Even though Amy Cuddy has researched and shown that body language can affect your emotional state, I believe that works only to a certain extent. Sitting upright in your chair can perk you up just that little, while you’ll find it hard to feel upbeat if you’re slouched in your chair. However, I have learned that it’s more often than not the other way round. You mental and emotional states will determine your physical state. If you’re feeling uncertain, anxious, ashamed, angry or lethargic, it’ll show/leak out in your body language. I subscribe to what Scott Berkun said, “good public speaking is based on good private thinking”. Therefore, it is in the private thought process that you go through in preparing a speech, the rehearsal and the emotional embodiment of your message that will help you become a powerful speaker.

4)  Develop your Authentic Style

Your success as a speaker depends on your self-awareness. As you become more and more confident in public speaking and pick up techniques, you have to be clear about who you are. Mainstream media portray the late Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr as role models of public speaking. There are a plethora of courses touting “Speak like Barack Obama” promises. Instead of blindly following, you need to know yourself, your personality, your message and your audience. Trying too hard to mimic someone else will only compromise your credibility as a speaker, and make you come across as an inauthentic prick.

5)   Drop the Show!

This is my biggest beef with most public speaking training. Many enthusiasts of the art of public speaking become overly in love with themselves on stage. They become overly attached to the performance. I lost track of the countless times I squirm uncomfortably when I see over-the-top, dramatic display of body language on stage. Unless the speaker intends to tell a dramatic story by re-enacting the scenes, or the occasion is an after-dinner speech where the speaker aims to entertain with slapstick humor, this is a hugely inappropriate strategy. Yes, falling flat on your face on stage is entertaining and can get you attention. It’s perfect if you’re working as a cruise director on a cruise ship. However, if you’re hoping to move up in the corporate world, that will unlikely boost your “executive presence”. Remember, you are giving a speech, not acting in a drama or musical!

So, is public speaking training a waste of time?

Public speaking is a learnable, important skill. It’s a skill that I would encourage everyone to develop. I would not say that it’s a waste of money. However, if you do invest, do so with self-awareness and take note of the above 5 points to make the most of it.

If you’re starting out, you’ve to find a platform that allows you a safe space to practice, to get feedback and improve. Invest in improving your craft or you’ll only stagnate. However, remember that on this journey, you’ve to maintain your self-awareness of why you’re speaking in the first place. Don’t place too much focus on just the external, the body language, how you appear to others. Develop your own style, don’t just copy others blindly. Finally, focus on your message and the purpose for speaking, it’s not just to put up a good show.

Aim not to become merely a great speaker…

Aim to become the person, who gives great speeches…

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