Tuesday, April 14, 2009

am I too old to learn good speaking skills?

This question--posed by a participant in one of my day-long sessions on communicating science--took me by surprise. The workshops include scientists of all ages, and the woman asking the question was indeed a senior participant who confided that she'd found speaking a big stumbling block over the years. I've trained people ranging in age from a 12-year-old to seniors in their seventies, and all of them have shaped my perspective on speaking and age. Here are my five observations:
  • The older you are, the more bad speaking habits you may need to unlearn. If you've been picking up tips here and there, but never had formal training, it's very likely that you've heard and incorporated bad advice into your routine as a speaker. The good news: this is not an insurmountable challenge, and no reason to bypass training now.
  • Older trainees know their own foibles, fears and areas of focus better. You've had more experience--even if it consists of avoiding speaking opportunities--and typically have a better sense of yourself and your preferences. If you can articulate them, a good trainer can work with you to mold them to your purpose.
  • You may be surprised at how things have changed. When I train people in using social media tools, I remind them that technology favors the late adopter, as they can benefit from new advances. That's also true of speaking styles. One senior trainee of mine was pleased to find out that his 1930s-era elocution training (which asked him to turn his Brooklyn accent into a more mainstream midwestern voice) didn't apply these days--and we used that story as an anecdote when he addressed a diverse group of 21st century teenagers to make a point about how far we've come in welcoming diversity in his profession.
  • Been avoiding speaking as a chore? Training offers fast, focused help. Training isn't magic, but it does offer a private, personalized time in which you can learn simple solutions that can help you overcome your barriers to speaking. You may have been stumbling over and over a problem for which there's a simple solution--just ask.
  • If your seniority goes beyond age, seek private training. I don't train leaders with their subordinates for a reason: Everyone needs a secure place to try and fail in training, and few people want to do that in front of their bosses--or their subordinates. Unless you are being trained with a peer group, ask for one-on-one sessions.
I often recommend to professional societies, membership groups, university faculty and other groups that they consider instituting speaker training for early-career members, for the reverse of those reasons. But there's no reason to omit training for seniors in your professional development tracks, and plenty of evidence suggests that using your "alumni" or seniormost participants as brand evangelists is especially effective. It's never too late to learn! Check my suggestions for what to ask the trainer -- 13 good questions -- before you hire her, and contact me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information about group or one-on-one training options.