North Carolina drivers: This is your warning.  No, not Click-it-or-ticket (which is a great campaign and a good idea).  It’s the notification that I am the parent of a teenage driver loose on the roads.  My son has looked forward to this moment for years, and I picked him up from school on the first possible day to rush to the DMV to get his precious laminated plastic.  I let him drive home.  The first car to pull up beside him was… a police cruiser!  (I wish somehow I could have set up to have a policeman pull him over that first drive, but I didn’t think of it until that moment!)

2016.02.DriverI’ve had tons of friends lament the stress of riding in the right seat with an inexperienced driver behind the wheel.  But I have been amazingly calm these last few weeks for one very important and planned reason.  This isn’t the first time my son has been driving.  Since he was three, I’ve put him in my lap and driven up long private driveways.  For the last two years, I’ve turned him loose in campgrounds and school parking lots on weekends.  I’ve made him pull the cars in and out of the garage any time there was a need.  I even made him pull the car up to a building in the rain once when I didn’t want to get wet. It was my goal to give him as much experience as possible before he hit rush hour.  Just this week, with sleet and slush on the roadways, I made him (the first time he didn’t want to drive) get behind the wheel.

After the umpteenth sarcastic comment about the DOT painting those lines for a reason and my desire to have the car stay between them, my son remarked, “I never thought it’d be this hard to keep the car in the middle of the road!

It’s not, of course.  Any adult driver (at least the ones not texting) exerts almost no effort to keep their car safely between the lines.  It’s experience that makes it possible.

Now with 11 hours and 26 minutes of formal (legal) driving under his belt, my son thinks he’s ready for NASCAR.  His mother and I give a consistent message: no 15-year-old driver is good enough to be completely safe.  In time, maybe, but not now.  He’s getting better every time out.  His last effort put him in a difficult merge at 65 mph onto a very dangerous off-ramp.  He got it done (no thanks to the road-rage Suburban intent on exerting his vehicular dominance over the lowly foreign sedan), and will do better next time.

The parallels to a speaker are hard to miss.  No first-time presenter is going to do it all right.  In our workshops, students frequently remark (about varying their voice, making big gestures, smiling bigger, or coming to a complete stop at the end of a sentence), “I didn’t think it’d be this hard!”  It’s not, of course.  Experienced presenters exert almost no effort to stop, express, and smoothly get to their call to action.  It’s the experience that makes it possible.

Speaking also has danger.  You could lose the sale.  Miss the job offer.  Offend the customer.  Fail to convince anyone to support your cause.  Forget to teach where the dimmer switch for the brights is.

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert.  That’s an enormous amount of time to speak (the equivalent of about 15 years of full-time public school teaching!).  Few people I’ve met will put that sort of time in over their lifetime.  And there’s the difference between great speakers and ones that get by.  Great speakers speak… to get better.  Not to get it over with.

You become a great speaker by:

  1. Knowledge: Learning what you need to do.
  2. Practice: Doing it with ongoing instruction and specific repetition
  3. Experience: Putting yourself in situations that require the use of the skills you are learning.
  4. Improvement: Relentlessly evaluating (e.g., watching video of yourself) and correcting every nuance of your behavior with respect to what works for the audience.

Athletes (and young drivers) immediately recognize this process:

Learn. Practice. Play. Review. — Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

 Almost everyone knows how to be a great presenter. Very few actually do what they know. That’s what makes the difference. Your goal should be to get better every time out.  Then when you hit a difficult situation with dangerous people in the audience, you can navigate it without incident.  But it takes work, and the cool guidance of someone who has been there before.

And, no matter how tough your next speaking engagement, the most dangerous part of the experience is driving home.

  • What was the last time you learned something new about speaking?
  • What have you practiced this week?
  • What new experience are you putting yourself in?
  • What can you say you do better now than last month?

Communication matters.  What are you saying?

This article was published in the February 2016 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters.  Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.