A Twitter friend of mine, Jeff Bailey, something of a presentation guru himself, told me about a two-day speaking class, Powerful Persuasive Speaking, taught by Alan Hoffler. I don’t think any of us can ever learn enough about the science and art of communicating, so I quickly signed up.

I became more aware in a few hours of my speaking shortcomings and strengths than I ever could have imagined, and then spent the next two days learning how to correct my bad habits (that I didn’t even know existed!) and become a better communicator. Our teacher Alan was a walking talking example of an engaging and effective speaker and he was also a fun, patient and knowledgeable instructor.

We had two rules to bear in mind:

  • It’s not about me, it’s about the audience.
  • Mind the gap — there’s a huge difference between what I’m feeling while speaking and what the audience is experiencing.

I definitely knew the first rule, although there have been a few times when it was hard to get out of my own worrying head and into the audience’s, especially when things out of my control disrupt my carefully prepared plan. I had experienced the second rule (the gap) and never quite believed it, but now I have the film to prove its truth. Sometimes if our mind is in turmoil and we think we are absolutely dying up there, strangely enough we can appear poised and confident to the audience – a huge gap in perception versus reality. Why do we appear so confident? It’s because we have the skills – either learned or innate. We are connecting to and engaging the audience. It seems almost magical at times.

Flickr photo by uwdigitalcollections

We learned about posture, arm placement, gestures, eye contact and movement. Yes, it is hard to walk and talk at the same time! It actually takes practice to do it in an effective way. Thankfully, we learned that much of this is similar to muscle memory. If we practice the skills, soon they become natural to us and we can build our presentation on top of them. I thought back to when I learned to figure skate and the hours I practiced school figures using different edges. Boring! But those skills became part of my muscle memory. Without having them as a base I couldn’t have done the pretty spins and jumps.

Another thing happened in class, something that wasn’t included in the program description. We started as a group of eleven strangers who were feeling a bit nervous, anxious and vulnerable about speaking, totally unprepared as to content (improvising in fact) in front of each other, and being filmed while doing it. By the end of the second day, we had bonded as a group that went through a discovery and learning process together. We felt comfortable pointing out each other’s mistakes and strengths. We became interested in each other’s professional paths. Some of us spoke of meeting regularly as a group to continue practicing our burgeoning skills.

Learning and growing is always more rewarding when doing it with others – whether it’s a class, study group, discussion group, workshop or retreat. Seeing the excited spark in someone’s eyes or noticing how their body moves to the edge of their seat leaning into a conversation – that can be infectious in the best way possible. I’ve always been motivated by opportunities to learn and find ways to make it a regular part of my life. How do you find ways to learn and grow with others?