I took accounting in college, got a C, and was grateful to make it through. It just didn’t come easily. At 19, I couldn’t envision a time when I would need to read a profit and loss statement. The best thing about it was it was a summer course so I could study at the university pool, and the boy who volunteered to tutor me was pretty cute.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy courses outside my major, journalism. I loved biology, for example. My semester project was to research and write a vegetarian cookbook with original recipes (fairly radical back then.) I discovered that I detested the lentils and tofu. It’s a texture thing. I grew up in the Midwest where we eat steaks and burgers for breakfast. But I digress.
As I look back, I realize that that I’ve always liked learning through experience. History is replete with stories of people who did, too. When Apple’s Steve Jobs dropped out of college he enrolled in a caligraphy course, which he credited with helping him to develop the deep appreciation for design that now characterizes every Apple product.
Some things you can learn in a book, others you can’t. The other day, a friend emailed to ask me to recommend some books on public speaking. She was distraught about a business presentation and writing a to do list - did I have suggestions? I told her to forget the books- and get busy speaking.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m the author of two, soon to be three books, so I believe in reading. But books are just the first step in speaking well. Get your head out of the book and get up on your feet. Schedule a talk. Practice. Take a course. Give another speech. Take another course. Join Toastmasters. Give another speech. Speaking is something you learn by doing.
Many of our clients love to read. So do I. But this proclivity can be an obstacle if you don’t take the next step. At a certain point, reading one more book won’t help you improve one iota.
Every leader I’ve ever worked with who is a great speaker tells me they started speaking early in their career - and kept going. You can learn later in life. You just need to put some muscle into your plan. If you do the same thing with the same result, it’s like going to the gym and doing curls with two pound weights; no matter how much time you spend, you’re never going to have Popeye arms. No pain, no gain. Raise the stakes. Then, practice like mad.
It’s also important to get clear about the difference between “preparation” and “practice.” Preparation is the thinking and writing and editing of your script and materials such as slides or handouts. Practice is getting up and saying it out loud. Many times. Many, many times.
Sometimes clients will say, “I’ve been working on this for weeks,” or “I’ve spent hours on this presentation.” However, upon further examination of the above statements, I find they’ve been dinking around with the slides, rejiggering the bullet points, creating four quadrant process visuals that you couldn’t read with a magnifying glass. As far as “practice?” The night before the presentation, at 9 pm, they get in bed to review the slides, until their loving spouse or significant other roles over and begs them to turn off the light. This, my friend, is not practice.
So if you love books, keep buying books for heavens sake. Support your favorite authors. Just don’t stop there. As Gloria Estefan sang,