One of the things I tell my adult college students is that they have to be patient while they’re learning to become better public speakers. I point out that adult students are impatient and often have a harder and more stressful time learning new skills because they put so much pressure on themselves. While younger students accept there’s a lot they don’t know, the older we get—and the more competent we are in other aspects of our lives—the less patience we have when we’re asked to do something we perceive as simple, like talking.
But speaking to an audience isn’t simple. Public speaking is an art, and art needs to be practiced and cultivated. Public speaking (once called oration) is also a misunderstood art. Although some of us are less shy or have stronger voices than others, no one is born a good public speaker. Accomplished public speakers, like accomplished athletes or painters, have to learn--and then practice the basics--while on the road to mastery. Fortunately, the building blocks of public speaking are very familiar to all of us: words, tone of voice, smiling, walking, gesturing, using eye contact, and organizing our thoughts.
And while it’s true we’ve been talking all our lives, chances are when we’re speaking publicly we're trying to achieve a goal, from getting a grade to getting a vote, which adds an element of pressure and dread. Students (of any age) bring fears—from niggling to overwhelming--to public speaking situations. They fear making a fool out of themselves, exposing their weaknesses, and being judged on their looks, personality, and intellect. (I'll save the topic of overcoming fear for another time, but for now, believe me when I say that overcoming fear is a learned skill too.)
To return to patience: because most people feel they're familiar with the elements of speaking and that nerves are their biggest hurdle, they often forget the other components of preparing and presenting a successful speech. They want to start at A and jump to Z. And they want to be perfect when they get there. But it's in the process of moving from A to Z that we all become more skillful, effective, and less jittery speakers.
A good presentation begins long before the audience gathers. It begins with the need to share information, with research, planning, writing, and editing. And writing a speech that is well researched, organized, appropriately illustrated, and touches the heart and mind of the audience is a time-consuming business. Still, if you’re committed, the learning curve involved in becoming a better public speaker won't take as long as you think. You’re a grown up now! You have wide and vast experience to draw from. Yes, there are specific skills involving the mind, voice, and body that will take time to master; becoming a confident public speaker is not an overnight affair. But learning to do anything you deem valuable, from painting to playing tennis, is made sweeter by the effort and time you put into learning how to do it well. (Plus, given the right environment, learning is fun. If it weren't, we'd walk off the court or drop the class, and never return.)
So, to recap: to become the public speaker you want to be you have to believe you can learn to be good; you have to internalize the value of learning the skills you'll need to get better; and you have to make a commitment to practice learning the basics, then go from there. In my experience working with adults, practicing patience is a basic. In fact, it's basic number one.
"What I have achieved by industry and practice, anyone else with tolerable natural gift and ability can also achieve." -- Johann Sebastian Bach