Many of the misconceptions you unknowingly cling to don’t do you any real harm. Your mistaken belief that the Great Wall of China is visible from space won’t jeopardize your professional success, let alone your survival.
Nonetheless, we all hold more false beliefs than we realize, thanks to what one brain scientist, writing last year for Fast Company, called “a powerful shortcut that our brains use every day,” known to researchers as “processing fluency.” What that means, in short, is that our minds are more receptive to information that’s easier to process.
One realm where this can do some damage is in public speaking. There are probably a few myths and misconceptions that can hurt your ability to communicate well. These are four of the most common.
MYTH NO. 1: IT’S ALL ABOUT PERSONALITY
Sure, having a dynamic personality can make it easier to become a great speaker, but your charisma alone won’t cut it. On the other hand, if you think you’re a soft-spoken introvert, or just think you have a pretty dull personality, that doesn’t condemn you to being a terrible public speaker. All it means is you’ll need to work at it. Speaking is one of those skills where talent helps, but practice helps more.
I once worked with a client whose son had just become a pro golfer at age 24. When I asked him how, my client told me that when his son was in grade school, a coach saw that he had talent and wanted to work with him. Later, in both high school and college, he continued to work with coaches who helped him get even better. So yes, he was born with natural ability. But he never would’ve become a pro without hard work and expert guidance. The same is true of just about any specialized skill.
While some people may have more natural speaking ability than others, nobody can become a great speaker with talent or personality alone. It takes practice and effort over time.
MYTH NO. 2: YOU SHOULD MEMORIZE THE MOST IMPORTANT PARTS
Lots of people think that if only they had more time to prepare a script–or at least memorize some key bits of phrasing–they’ll be much better speakers. Wrong.
Unless you’re a trained actor, memorizing what you’re going to say will only leave you sounding flat. Instead, you need to focus on speaking spontaneously–just with a little structure. This means having a rough outline in your head of what you’re going to talk about, but not a word-for-word script. The best speakers can talk spontaneously while staying within a coherent structure they’ve planned in advance. To get better at that, you first need to dispense with the notion that memorization is going to help you.
MYTH NO. 3: THE BEST WAY TO CONNECT IS WITH EMOTION
While you may be able to find impromptu moments of inspiration every once in a while, it’s impossible to consistently fuel your presentations with emotion alone. Great speakers don’t need inspiration to be great. They’re great because they take their preparation seriously and are deliberate about every aspect of their speaking.
When I was a theater director, actors would often tell me in rehearsal, “Don’t worry, when I’m in front of an audience, I turn it on.” But take it from me–after working with actors for seven years, I never once saw anything on stage that I didn’t see in rehearsal. Similarly, you can’t just expect to psych yourself up when it’s time to speak. You need to practice, and you need to be thoughtful about what you’re doing. Spontaneity, energy, and emotion are all great–but they should never be an excuse to wing it.
MYTH NO. 4: YOU NEED TO READ YOUR AUDIENCE
A few years ago, I worked with a financial adviser who gave the same presentation to a new audience every single week. She came to me for help because her evaluations for these presentations were consistently terrible. She tried so hard to try to read her audiences’ reactions and do whatever she could to engage with them, but nothing seemed to work–she just couldn’t connect.
I helped her understand that instead of focusing on her audience, she needed to focus on herself. She needed to devote all her energy to what she was doing, not how her audience was reacting to it. Six weeks later, I heard back from her: “Anett, I can’t believe it! I got all 10s!”
When you’re speaking, don’t worry so much about how your audience is reacting. If you try to do and say whatever you think will elicit a response, you’re bound to lose your rhythm and fail. Yes, you can change up what you do depending on the size of your audience, but you shouldn’t try to adapt on the fly to every flicker or emotion or dip in attitude you might pick up on among your listeners. Instead, concentrate on your own habits and behaviors, and your audience will engage with you.
These four misconceptions are really common, but they’re often bigger barriers to effective speaking than lack of talent or preparation. So the next time you hear a piece of conventional wisdom about what it takes to be a great speaker, pause for a second to think about whether it’s really wise–or just conventional.