When I think of the people I know who are great public speakers, one person comes to mind. I’ll call him Clark. He’s the best of the best. He can have an audience laughing and curious with his first remark. He’s conversational. He asks questions. Tells stories. Gives strong examples. Keeps things simple and clear, but throws in a twist to keep everyone tuned in. His pacing is perfect. You can always feel his passion.

Those are all the great attributes you can expect in a presentation by Clark, unless it happens to be one of those presentations when he speaks in a rushed monotone throughout, as if he were reading – adding more and more information and not taking a break till the audience is already overwhelmed. When he makes an important point, it falls flat because it’s crowded out by lots of detail that no one cares about.

After Clark gives a talk of that second kind — let’s call it the “bad” kind — he often senses that it didn’t go as well as it could have, and he’ll ask me: “How can I do better, how can I be a better speaker?”

But I tell him: “You don’t need to take a class in public speaking, you could be teaching it. You don’t need to learn how to engage an audience and convey a message – you’re amazing at that.”

My feedback for Clark is that he’s got two totally different speaking “modes” or styles. How could he improve as a speaker? He could improve by learning to recognize which mode he’s in at any time. He could improve by developing “mode awareness.” 

In Clark’s case, there’s Mode 1, which is “Conversational, fun, clear,” and there’s Mode 2, which is “Rushed, monotonous, unfocused.” But when Clark is in Mode 2, he doesn’t always know it. He’d be unstoppable if he developed the “superpower” of noticing when he’s in Mode 2, and then being able to course-correct and switch to Mode 1.

Mode-switching is easier said than done. There are reasons why Clark goes into Mode 1 or Mode 2 and those situational factors might not be simple to overcome. If Clark is happy about being asked to speak, if he believes he can have a positive impact by doing so, if he feels well-prepared, if the schedule gives him enough time to tell jokes and go at a leisurely pace, and if he senses a rapport with the audience, I bet this is what pushes him into Mode 1. But if he was asked to talk at the last minute, if he feels stressed by other competing obligations, if he feels a duty to convey more information than the schedule gives him time for, if he thinks he hasn’t prepared well enough, and if he doesn’t feel the audience is following him, I bet this pushes him into Mode 2.

So the question for Clark is, can he still adopt Mode 1 behaviors when the situation would otherwise send him into Mode 2?

But this isn’t an essay about public speaking per se. This is an essay about what we can all learn from Clark’s combination of excellence and occasional awkwardness.

One thing Clark’s situation shows is that when we’re looking to get better at something, we might already have the skills we’re hoping to gain, we’re just not applying them when we could. When one of Clark’s talks doesn’t go well, it’s not because he’s lacking skill, it’s because he’s not applying the abundant skills that make most of his talks so successful. 

Another thing Clark’s experience shows is that when we’re performing poorly, the “fix” might not be to keep doing the same things that we’re currently doing, but just do them a little better. The fix might be to do different things entirely.

When Clark is in Mode 1, he’s using certain techniques — like telling stories and jokes and asking questions of the audience — that he’s not using at all in Mode 2, when he’s rushing through a whole bunch of verbiage. And when he’s in Mode 2, if he’s speaking in a hurried monotone, well, you don’t fix that by incrementally adding more variation to your tone and gradually inserting more pauses, while saying the same phrases. You fix that by taking a different attitude altogether and letting that new attitude play out in your delivery, which might involve different phrasings altogether, in a totally different tone.

It’s true, situations exist where the difference between having a “bad day” and having a “good day” is all about one specific thing and how we’ll we’re doing that one thing. If we’re competing in a sprint, the difference between a bad day and a good day is how fast we’re able to run. If we could just run a little faster, if we could just shave a second or two off of our time, that would turn a bad day into a good day. But when Clark is speaking in Mode 2, there’s no equivalent of “running faster” that would result in a better talk.

A sprint’s demands are clear, but lots of performance situations are more complex and ambiguous – they require a much more varied range of skills and behaviors than simply running fast. Oftentimes when we’re having a bad day at something complex like public speaking or playing music or even pursuing romance, we’re doing totally different things from what we’d be doing if it were a good day. 

So the lesson is, if we want to have more good days, we shouldn’t try to keep doing the same things we’re doing on bad days, just a little bit better, a little faster, a little cleaner. We’ve got to be open to doing different things altogether. And here’s the kicker — we might already know full well how to do those different things, because we’ve done them many times before, on our good days. ■

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