Though I spend most of my time reading books about public speaking and leadership, every so often I consume five books on a topic far outside of what I have exposed myself to in the past. While I do this mostly for intellectual enjoyment, I often find concepts and techniques to apply to public speaking. Over the years, I used this approach to explore screenplay writing, fiction, and comedy, three genres that are gold mines for speakers.
Inspired by the fact that Steve Jobs left “The Autobiography of a Yogi” as a final gift to mourners at his funeral, I recently decided to read up on Eastern religion – particularly Buddhism. While I have gained no more than a rudimentary, ‘arm-chair’ understanding, the core concepts of mindfulness and compassion that comprise enlightenment reminded me of the journey toward public speaking mastery.
To explore this analogy, I’ll use Noel Burch’s ‘Conscious Competence” learning model:
Stage I – Unconscious incompetence: This stage is best described as obliviousness. A public speaker in this stage would stand up without fear, deliver a terrible presentation, and then sit back down again without awareness of how poor their speech went. While I have not encountered many people in this stage, I imagine there are two sub-types: (a) those deluded about their ability (b) those who could care less about public speaking.
Stage II – Conscious incompetence: In this stage, an individual knows public speaking is a critical part of sharing ideas worth spreading (i.e. they know “WHY”), but they have not yet learned “HOW” to be an effective communicator. From what I can tell, this is where most people are. This is also the stage where natural speaking anxiety causes fear.
Stage III – Conscious competence: I like to refer to individuals in this stage as “expert speakers.” They know the why and the how of public speaking. They know, for example, to speak loud and slow to be authoritative or to make deliberate eye-contact for 3 seconds in a random pattern.
Stage IV – Unconscious competence: Here is where Buddhism comes back into the picture. Individuals in this stage are “enlightened speakers;” they are “experts who speak” rather than “expert speakers.” In my own experience, this is actually a state rather than a stage since, like enlightenment, it happens in the delightful situations where you are both fully mindful and compassionate. It is a state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as Flow. To be mindful in the public speaking context is to be one with your content, free of expectations of what may or may not result from your speech. To be compassionate in the public speaking context is to speak purely in the service of your audience and without self-judgement.
The fascinating thing to me about being in the Stage IV, enlightened speaking state is that you do not get there by learning. You get there by unlearning. Watch a very young child speak; they inspire with great passion and no fear. Enlightened speaking is inside all of us; we simply have share ideas we are passionate about with people we care about and without regard for what came before or what will come after.