Hide the Art (especially Toastmasters)

Toastmasters is a wonderful organisation for anybody who wishes to improve their ability to speak with impact.

However, there is something that has often challenged me with the “best” toastmaster speeches. They are very clearly the work of someone who has worked very, very, very hard on the words, gestures and voice that they use to deliver the speech. The “best” toastmaster speeches verge on the theatric and sometimes leave behind a sense of a natural conversation.  Toastmasters evaluations can focus on bringing attention to symbols of hard work on the art of public speaking – big gestures, long pauses, wide ranges of volume, tone and pace in voice.

I am reading Sims Wyeth‘s book “The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking” at the moment.  One of his sections is called “Hide the Art”.  It speaks about the need to hide your brilliance as a speaker.

Hide the Art

Why hide the art?  Why would you want to go to the effort to hide the work you have done on being a great speaker?

Sims refers to a number of great political orators of the Athenian state.  They knew that if the people saw them as relaxed and natural, they would be more open to listen to their ideas.  If the people saw how much they worked on their ability to speak, the people would be worried about being manipulated by them.

It is a paradox – being visibly “too good” makes you less likely to connect and persuade.

Hiding the art does not mean that you intentionally are a poor speaker.  It means what Bruce Lee refers to as Natural Un-Naturalness (see final paragraphs of post).

“The natural instinct and control need to be combined in harmony – one to the extreme you become very unscientific, the other you become a mechanical man… no longer a human being – the ideal is unnatural naturalness, or natural unnaturalness… yin yang” Bruce Lee

The swan swims gracefully over the water of the pond – only the fish see how hard her little feet are paddling beneath the surface.  This is the art of great speaking.  The art is to go through theatrical and get back to looking authentic, human and natural.

Moving people to action requires that you go beyond the level of preparation that allows you to deliver an excellent performance and arrive at an ability to hold a peer-to-peer conversation with the audience.

The path to Natural must pass through Contrived

The path to natural unnaturalness must pass through “contrived unnaturalness” – you have to do the work to move through discomfort and expansion of your natural range as a speaker – and Toastmasters is the absolute best path.  However, taking your message beyond toastmasters requires integrating the gestures, voice, words back into yourself so that the audience feels like you have not worked so hard.  This way they trust the person and listen to the message, rather than are impressed by the person, but distrustful of the message.

Great artists mastered the basics over many, many years before they found the path back to what we might call “authentic” or natural.

The Most Important Lesson of Toastmasters

Roald Amundsen, Polar Explorer

In 1910 two adventurers, Scott and Amundsen, were on a race to the last unexplored point on the planet, the south pole. Scott was the hero of the British Empire: older, more experienced and with lots of resources at his disposal. Amundsen was the hero of Norway.

They both arrived at the shores of the Antarctic about the same time and both began their journeys of 1600 miles on foot, carrying everything they would need.

Scott would wake each morning and open his tent door. If the sun was shining and there was no wind, he would set his team a goal of 50 miles. If it was a terrible day, windy, cold: he would stay in the tents and wait for a better moment.

Scott’s journey continued this way, day after day. Each day he checked the conditions and then decided how far to travel.

Amundsen woke up each morning and pushed his team for 20 miles. Every day, 20 miles. Some days were sunny and they would achieve 20 miles by lunchtime. Some days were harsh and it would take until the last hour of light to achieve the 20 miles. Every day, 20 miles.

Amundsen won the race to the pole, and his team could have continued their journey for months more. Scott lost the race to the pole, and his whole team died on the return journey.

Focus on the Process Goals

Stress is a result of believing I can control more than I can realistically control. Outcome goals are a driver of stress. I cannot control the weather. I can only control my own actions. If I set €1M in sales as a goal, I set an outcome goal. If I decide I want to be as good a speaker as Florian Mueck or John Zimmer, I set an outcome goal. These are great dreams, but they are not helpful goals.

This is a big challenge in Europe today. There is little education in setting healthy process goals. If I know that €1M in sales requires 3 meetings a week, and this requires 20 phone calls per day – a healthy process goal is 20 phone calls today. This is under my control. If you want to be a great speaker, the process goal is to practice speaking 3 minutes every day.

Toastmasters shows me that every member who sets a healthy process goal of regular practice gains control of their progress towards mastery. This is a message that people in Europe today need. In addition, the support of people who are there in the water with you makes the journey more enjoyable.

Originally published in the European Toastmasters newsletter.

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