Speaking Skills And The Liking Gap

I came across this recently (from the blog of Ed Batista, who is a business coach):

“A mental model I held about myself for years was that I was a poor public speaker. I’d get nervous before a presentation or speech, I interpreted my sweaty palms and the pit in my stomach as evidence of my ineffectiveness, and my expectation that I would perform poorly became a self-fulfilling prophecy which, of course, reinforced my mental model.

But while I was getting my MBA I took a public speaking course at Stanford’s School of Engineering. The rationale for the course was that engineers are often brilliant technical thinkers whose poor communication skills prevent them from promoting their ideas more effectively, and the methodology was utterly simple: Prepare a short speech or presentation and deliver it to the class each week for ten weeks.

I quickly came to realize that it’s easy to improve as a public speaker if you do it often enough, and that I had trapped myself in my own mental model: believing I was a poor speaker led me to avoid speaking opportunities, which prevented me from ever improving. Today I still get nervous before a speech or presentation, but I view that response simply as a manifestation of my desire to do well, not as damning evidence of my ineffectiveness. And I still make plenty of missteps as a speaker, but I view them as correctible mistakes, not as character flaws.”

I thought some years ago that I should improve my public speaking as it’s a useful general purpose skill. At about the same time I came across this recommendation from business guru Tom Peters:

“Join Toastmasters. Oral communication skills count enormously. A lot of managers aren’t bad at public speaking. But “aren’t bad” ain’t good enough, not if you’re wise – and especially these days when jawing with the same old gang from year to year is becoming rare. Height and hair color may be in the genes. Public speaking isn’t. It’s a skill that can be studied, polished, more or less perfected. (Toastmasters) does a fabulous job of helping people shape up their communication skills.”

So I considered joining as a trial (there was a branch just 30 mins away) but got intimidated for exactly the reasons given above. I’ve just checked, now there are two sites even nearer! So I’m going to reconsider…naturally physical meetings are on hold at the moment (covid) but hopefully  that will change.

Some blurb from Toastmasters in case you’ve not heard of it:

“Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. Headquartered in Englewood, Colo., the organization’s membership exceeds 364,000 in more than 16,200 clubs in 145 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people from diverse backgrounds become more confident speakers, communicators, and leaders.”

Their policy seems to be learning by doing and then improving through group feedback. They cover many different forms of speaking, from giving a speech or award to having an informal conversation. I’m not sure how this learning method works for conversations but it would be interesting to find out as I’ve written on this topic many times (often motivated by the ideas of David Gurteen, who is quite an expert in this and related areas).

Indeed I was surprised to read that some of the key issues were apparent as far back as 1957 (Ralph Nicols and Leonard Stevens wrote a piece on it for the Harvard Business Review). The Toastmasters article on their site highlights three main factors for conversations; Engaged Listening, the ‘Liking Gap’ and Finding Balance.

The ‘Liking Gap’ was a new one to me but easy to relate to:

“When researchers forced people to start conversations with strangers on trains, in waiting rooms and at coffee shops, the participants ended up enjoying themselves. They also reported they were no less productive than if they’d kept to themselves. And yet, when these subjects were asked if they would start more conversations in the future, most answered no. Why?

As it turns out, we get in the way of our own enjoyment and well-being. A recent study showed that oftentimes, we are so caught up worrying about saying the right thing or being witty, we don’t notice that the other person is enjoying our company. This is called the “liking gap” and it means we tend to significantly underestimate how much other people like us. We’re stuck in our own heads, afraid we will say the wrong thing.”

You can’t help but wonder how much is simple conditioning as from a young age we’re all told not to talk to strangers and perhaps this viewpoint subconsciouly carries on into adulthood.

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