Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What guitar lessons are teaching me about public speaking--and training

"You can't stop when you make a mistake," he said.  "You're pausing to think what you did wrong and how to fix it. But you've got to keep going. The pros make mistakes all the time, but they keep going."

Call it my once-a-week professional development if you want to.  It's really my guitar lesson, and I'm finding each session rich in insights about the speaker and presenter trainings I do, and what my trainees experience when they're new to public speaking or trying a new technique for the first time.

Take the stopping.  I know full well that "ums" trip lots of speakers up. The speaker's got a heightened awareness of any mistakes she makes, especially if she's nervous or not as practiced at it.  And ums serve as a verbal pause while you're trying to remember what it was you wanted to say.  They're also a normally occurring part of everyone's speech.  Nonetheless, if an um throws you off and you stop, you'll find your momentum and focus tough to recover.  Easy for me to know about public speaking, but new as a concept to learn on the guitar.  And I've learned that I'm just like anyone else: Anxious to do well, aware of how difficult the skill is to learn, not happy when I miss a note or lose the rhythm, all perfectly understandable feelings that do nothing to help me get through "Wildwood Flower" or "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" In fact, they're my biggest roadblocks.

When I was thinking through whether to take up guitar, my pal Leah Garnett of the website Music After 50 gave me great advice (she's a lifelong guitarist and jazz guitar is her passion)--and she interviewed me right before I bought a guitar and started lessons.  She asked about similarities between performing and public speaking, and I can now say from experience that I understand even better what's going through the minds of trainees who get nervous just speaking in front of only me!  Performing for my instructor is nerve-wracking enough for me for now, although he gently reminds me that my goal is to get good enough to play with other people.  Music, like speaking, needs an audience to really thrive.  Performers, whether guitarists or speakers, need to stop underestimating themselves and plunge in.  Case in point: I predicted for Leah that I wouldn't be able to handle a dreadnought, the largest acoustic guitar, but it's what I own now. It's truly a stretch, but the sound is incredible.  And in the last month, when I let go and anchor my playing with rest, practice and a willingness to risk, it sounds great--even when I miss a note.  (I also know from speaker coaching that it's the performer who notices their nervousness and mistakes, not the audience, most of the time.)  My instructor, who informed me I just got myself a hobby for life, says with confidence what I say to would-be speakers: If you practice, you will get better.

So these days, I think of my guitar instructor when I get a comment like this one from a woman who participated in one of my workshops focused on creating and delivering a message: "Thanks for making me step out of my comfort zone and for the warning that I would be expected to step out of my comfort zone. Without that discomfort, I don't think the message would have been as meaningful."