February 27, 2023

Low Expectations and Learning New Skills

Public Speaking , Presentation Tips , Instruction

Life as a single adult has taught her that low expectations are the key to happiness, Buckley coach Jenny Maxwell often jokes.

There's a case to be made that low expectations can also be the key to learning new skills—especially for something like public speaking, where learning can make you feel vulnerable.

A few years ago, we wrote about a TED Talk that explored this idea by identifying two zones—the performance zone and the learning zone.

Learning vs Performance

In that talk, Eduardo Briceño, says the performance zone is where we get things done by doing what’s been working for us. The learning zone, he says, is where we make a deliberate effort to break down activities into component skills and practice those with feedback and adjustment.

To move into the learning zone, he says, requires a belief and desire to get better and finding opportunities for deliberate practice to improve.

But we see at our school that it can be hard for people to give themselves permission to practice. Most of us are wired to do our best. Struggling and failing isn't comfortable. So how can you give yourself space to flounder? 

1. Declare your intention for others to hear

Are you trying to speak more slowly? Want to eliminate filler sounds or speak in shorter sentences? It can help to let others in your circle know that you’re trying to stretch yourself and improve—so that if you feel you’re struggling, you've clued them in as to why. 

A caution here: We're not suggesting you do this at the start of an important presentation (see item #3 below). Try this approach with those whose good opinion you already have, people you know will support you.

Apologizing at the top of big presentation—or warning an audience that you might struggle—is often a poor choice for a presenter. Most of the time, most audiences aren’t aware of your shortcomings and won’t notice them unless you point them out. 

We think of this tip more in line with stating a fitness goal (I'm going to run a 5k) or your intention in a practice tennis match (I'm going to rush the net after every serve). You say it out loud in order to make it easier to see and do.

2. Find the right coach

We often turn to people in our lives for feedback. Sometimes, that feedback comes up short. Either it's too general and too positive (You were great!) or it pulls the confidence rug out from under our already shaky feet.

The "right" coach is someone who can understand your goals, help you do more of what's working, and focus on the next small improvement you can make. For example, if you'd like to slow your rate of speech, remove all uhs and ums, and speak in shorter sentences, these ARE connected. Yet accomplishing all three at the same time is no small feat. 

The right coach can help you practice bit by bit and prioritize the changes you want to make. The right coach will give you specific feedback: I noticed you start out slow but when you get a few minutes in, you return to rushing. That right coach will also tell you: You're doing a great job of slowing the pace at the beginning now, where you used to rush because you're nervous.

Serena Williams's former coach, Patrik Mourataglou, says the coach may see 20 things a player needs to work on. The coach's job, he says, is to not say all 20 things. The player won't be able to take it in and will focus on the one or two that sound easiest. The coach's job is to identify the few things that will make the most impact now.

A good public speaking coach—whether it's Buckley faculty, a work colleague, or a spouse—can do the same thing for you. 

3. Try new skills when the stakes are low

The time to experiment with all the new techniques you want to incorporate is not when you stand up to give a major pitch to win a multi-million dollar contract.

Work on improving your delivery and take what feels like a risk when you can afford for things go a little awry.

For example, if you want to use more stories in your presentations, try using a story in a staff meeting or when you're presenting to peers. Want to add more descriptive gestures when you present to the board so you seem more dynamic? Try those out in a rehearsal and videotape it, to see how it works.

We're so much more likely to stretch ourselves and grow from the experience if we can make our mistakes when they don't carry huge consequences. Then, as you see how something new works, you can tweak it and add it to your presentations when the stakes are higher. 

The most important thing: Give it a try

It's tempting to follow a plan that's worked for you thus far, even if that plan is not perfect. And it takes time, as well as courage, to try something new. Yet, we know from our own experiences that improving public speaking is a lifelong pursuit. That's part of what, we think, makes it such an interesting skill to develop.

Learn more

Want more helpful feedback on your presentations? Check out these tips for how to request it.

Read more about the learning zone and how Beyonce and Demosthenes have made it work for them.

See how our students who serve in the military approach learning new skills for faster result.

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