Experience Teaches Nothing
They say, “Experience is the best teacher.” But it ain’t so.
Experience, in and by itself, doesn’t teach anything. Experience is an opportunity for learning.
The experience of being a parent, for example, does not necessarily give people special insight or wisdom. It doesn’t inevitably make them more loving, patient, or understanding. Sadly, all too many parents are self-absorbed, negligent, or abusive. Being a parent doesn’t, on its own, teach people anything; it puts them in a situation, which has its own demands and rewards, where they can learn — or not learn – how to be a person worthy of being called a mother or a father.
The same is true about learning how to speak.
On the one hand, you have to get up and give speeches. There’s nothing like the experience of being in front of an audience and giving it your best shot. (That’s one reason why I often recommend that people look into Toastmasters.)
On the other hand, giving speeches — even lots of them — doesn’t necessarily make you a good speaker. I listen to experienced speakers all the time who are disorganized, confusing, and boring. Maybe you do, too.
So how do you learn from your experience?
First, observe other speakers. And get critical. By critical, I don’t mean “inclined to find fault or to judge with severity.” I mean “using skillful judgment to determine something’s value or worth.”
Pay special attention to good speakers. And notice what they’re doing. If they lose you or confuse you, ask yourself what happened. Don’t blame yourself. Try to figure out why you got lost or what they said that didn’t make sense to you. And when you get caught up in what they’re saying, take a step back and analyze what they’re doing. How are they relating to the audience? Do they tell stories? Do they use humor? If so, what kind? And pay attention to speakers who aren’t so good.
For example, there’s a speaker I hear rather often. She’s prepared and she has good things to say. But I’m almost always bored. It’s as if she’s lulling me to sleep. One day I decided that since I had to listen to her anyway, I would use the time to figure out what she was doing that I found so sleep-inducing. And I noticed two things. First, she was reading her speech word for word. It’s hard to project energy and vitality when you’re reading a speech. Some people can do it. Most can’t. And second, she had written her speech for the eyes, not for the ears. She used long, complex sentences. They would be fine if you were reading them in a book or a journal, but not fine if you were listening to them. (Okay, I’ll confess it: I’m a fanatic. I can’t simply say someone’s sentences are too long. I had to count how many words were in each sentence. So for three or four minutes, I counted. And I found that her sentences were 45 to 50 words long. And she used, on average, five phrases per sentence!)
So observe good speakers and less riveting speakers. And pay attention to what they’re doing, to what works and what doesn’t work. Ask yourself how you can apply the lessons you’ve learned from them. (I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you imitate them.)
Second, get feedback from people you trust about your own speaking.
I give that piece of advice with some trepidation. Much of the feedback I’ve received over the years and have heard other people receive has been counterproductive. People — even well-meaning, intelligent people — can give some stupid advice about speaking.
Here’s what I do. When people say something nice or not so nice about a speech I’ve given, I ask them to be specific. What did I do or say that they liked or disliked. Where in my speech did I grab their attention or turn them off? What was I doing at that moment? How did they perceive it? How did it make them feel? And I listen real carefully. Then, they go on to tell me how I could fix it, and I listen less carefully. All too often people give advice about how they would do something. They don’t have the ability or the insight to help me do what I do better.
Listen to people’s advice and analyze it. Try it out if it makes sense.
Finally, take responsibility for your own learning. (That’s the theme that runs through my first two pieces of advice.) Observe others, analyze what they do, seek advice, listen, reflect, experiment. Let your experience be the classroom. But be your own teacher.
What about you? How do you learn best to be a good speaker?