BY Russell Wardrop

DATE: 23 JUL 2012


It is disproportionate to employ the phrase associated with over-enthusiastic use of the guillotine in revolutionary France when talking about public speaking. But terror is a common word when I ask people to describe how they feel about standing one in front of many. Your next podium performance is unlikely to be memorable, in a good way, if terror means that the sum of your ambition is to remain vertical and continent.

Dramatic adjectives like fear, terror and nausea are used by even the most experienced business people. The first few chapters of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman tell us why. Kahneman defines System 1 and System 2 thinking: System 1 we do automatically; System 2 needs more effort, energy and glucose. Yes, glucose. Try one of his examples by way of illustration:

Think of a four digit number. Now, tap the table every two seconds and, on every second tap, add one digit on to the four you have chosen (2679… 3780… 4891… etc.). Do that for a minute or two and you will be cream-crackered, craving Mars bars.

System 2 thinking uses a lot of our resources. Now, generally, speaking in public is System 1. It’s a meme, meaning it’s not quite in our genes but we get it hard wired into us, by repetition and environmental influences, very early on. (Richard Dawkins is the origin of the word. It’s Greek.) We do it all the time in the office, at home and down the pub.

The problem is that it’s easy to think that effective public speaking is the same as speaking in public down the pub. It’s not. For this piece I’m renaming it Podium Speaking, with capitals. So, where speaking in public is mostly System 1 (there are exceptions, like when you go and try to get someone’s mobile number) Podium Speaking is mostly System 2: It takes effort, energy and Mars Bars.

There are two specifics to note here, no matter where you are on the Public Speaking Pyramid:

The first thing is that practise can make a meme, or System 1, out of something that previously took a lot of effort. When you see an outstanding orator getting up and strutting their funky stuff, do not be seduced into thinking you, with a bit of bravado and a few Tequila Slammers, can do the same. (Would you think you could just rock up to the stage and play clarinet?) Over time these speakers have made much of the skill of Podium Speaking System 1. It is a meme. Malcolm Gladwell would tell you it’s 10 000 hours of practise. After yesterday’s British Open, Ernie Els might say it is 10 000 fifteen foot putts:  A professional golfer might make himself sink ten fifteen foot putts in succession at the end of a practise session. Rhythm and cadence and routine and structure might come under System 1 here, in both golf and Podium Speaking.

The more you work on them the more they get visceral and need less conscious effort. In fact the anticipation of Podium Speaking can be a real buzz. This means you “stay in the moment” on the final green at The Open and you can use the “extempore” method of Podium Speaking to choose your words as you deliver them.

The second thing to note is that good speakers always know when to go to System 2. For golfers it is not on the course- Adam Scott will soon be back on the practise ground and having sit-down sessions with his coach- and for Podium Speakers it is not when they are standing in front of their audience. System 2 thinking is reflecting on what you should be saying; creating a compelling narrative; keeping to time because you are focussed and speak to the purpose; being familiar with how the technology integrates with your words. There are many others. Golfers have their own list.

Burning all that energy when in the spotlight on things you should have done beforehand usually leads to unhappy consequences. At best, you will “get away with it”. Need proof? Go back to Kahneman’s four digit numbers from earlier; now try and do anything else when attempting that task.  

So be smart enough to do your System 2 thinking in the right place at the right time, even if you have Podium Speaking as a meme. If you do it when you are on the stage you might be guillotined.


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about the author

Russell Wardrop is our Chief Executive. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop him an email and we will be in touch.

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