Sunday, November 30, 2008

Work, Not Talent, Tends to Distinguish Speakers

I just read an article from Geoff Colvin, a writer I really like in Fortune magazine. It is titled "Why Talent is Overrated," and it is about how the notion of a "natural" in most endeavors is a myth*. I see lots of parallels in speakers.
  1. If at first we don't succeed, we give up. -- Many new speakers get in front of a crowd, and when they aren't the next Orson Welles, they give up. However, it takes some time and practice to become proficient. There are no known genes for public speaking. We need to develop our writing and our speaking styles. Very few speakers step up and hit it out of the park early. That's why pro speaker Darren LaCroix preaches, "Stage time, stage time, stage time."
  2. We are not always willing to undergo "deliberate practice." -- I spoke about this in my November 12 post. I once heard that successful people are willing to do what unsuccessful people will not do. Author Colvin speaks about deliberate practice, which comprises activities that are meant to deliver performance. I recently delivered a six-year-old, award-winning speech to a large group of Toastmasters. I did not take for granted that I knew the material. I practiced it repeatedly in my car, and gave it to three Toastmaster club meetings, each a different audience. The repetition led to familiarity, and the feedback led to improvement. Nothing magic or accidental there. Sure, there are other ways I would have preferred to spend my time, but I would not have had the payoff I received. More important, my audience would not have received so much value either.

  3. We don't set the right goals. -- When we have a speaking project, our goal is not the speech itself. As Colvin points out, "The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome. For instance, a speech whose end goal is to inspire the audience requires you to do more that fulfill those objectives. You need to make sure the speech is organized well, that you are using your body properly, that your vocal variety is effective, that you are using your props to full effect, et cetera. Meeting limited goals leads to limited development.

  4. We often don't see the benefits of our hard work; we focus only on the work itself. -- I once heard the great Zig Ziglar speak of his hard work to lose weight, when he arose early every morning just to job, until he reduced his weight and waistline but improved his health. He concluded that "we don't PAY the price of good health, we ENJOY the price of good health." Likewise, we enjoy building a good marriage, raising children and other goals in our loves. Likewise, we should all be enjoying work that goes into our speaking skills. That includes crafting the text of a speech, pulling together the various elements that will make it successful, and test-driving our work in front of various audiences. This is the price we pay for excellence, but it is hardly slave labor. There is always an opportunity to have fun with it.

We all have our barriers. A woman in one of my clubs became a competent communicator despite having a hearing impairment. I constantly struggle with a speech impediment, and I have to write my speeches in certain ways in order to avoid words that I will stumble over. John Stossell of ABC News and actor James Earl Jones had to overcome stuttering. But all of the work is worth it, as it is the only path to success, not the imaginary "natural talent." Geoff Colvin sums up in this way: "...The price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high. Maybe it's inevitable that not many people will choose to pay it. But the evidence also shows that by understanding how a few become great, all can become better."

* Geoff Colvin's book, "Why Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else," is published by Portfolio Books, a member of the Penguin Group.

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