There are many approaches to coaching new skills like public speaking. At Speechworks, we strongly favor the carrot rather than the stick.

When learning something new, I’ve been on the receiving end of both carrots and sticks over the years. The sticks tend to be the experiences that well.. stick.. but not for the right reasons.

I was placed into school at the age of four having learned to read early. My parents read to me often, demonstrated reading out loud and gently corrected me in the moment as I tried it myself. Math was a different animal.

My teacher in the class called “sums” was essentially the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Mrs Harrison would grit her teeth and wield a wooden ruler like a Samurai sword. I would be summoned to the front of the class and handed a clammy piece of chalk. She would then count to ten as I fecklessly attempted to complete the sum she had etched on the blackboard. The experience was nothing short of sheer terror as she crescendoed at “ten” and delivered a walloping slap to the back of my legs that stung like the blazes and stayed red all day as testament to my numerical shame.

For me, at least, this was not the way to foster confidence in math. In fact, I still break out in a sweat when faced with basic mental arithmetic.

These days, I coach spoken communication, and recognize the distinctive pall of fear that envelops the face of a student who would rather jump off a tall building than deliver a small speech. That fear can rise to epic proportions when they learn they’re also going to be filmed doing it. That’s when their eyes flit towards the door as they contemplate making a run for it.

Luckily for them, I don’t own a ruler and teaching methods have come a long way since The Creature From The Black Lagoon. That said, there are apparently coaches who believe that the best medicine is still a stick. Their methods involve “breaking “ you of bad habits, much as you break a horse. Criticism can be harsh, personal, unpleasant and very public. The word “break” kind of sums it up for me.

Now, I’m sure there are those who somehow respond to the “short, sharp, shock” therapy that this approach entails. Perhaps they feel they deserve to be punished for failing to exceed expectations in public speaking. But the question for me, and many researchers on this topic, is not whether a stick can be effective, but whether it’s necessary.

If you can get the same results with a carrot, isn’t it preferable to a cattle prod?

One study on the subject of effective teaching methods identifies something called “flow” experience. The research focused on a group of boys who were disengaged and unmotivated inside and out of school. It found the subjects are most engaged, motivated and receptive to learning when they are completely immersed in the present moment.

This approach requires 4 key conditions:

  • A challenge that requires a certain level of skill to be successful
  • Clear, step by step goals and continual feedback
  • A focus on what’s happening in the moment
  • The belief that you are learning competence and control

I’m glad to say this theory mirrors closely the approach we have at Speechworks,

  • We challenge our clients to be successful by learning to speak effectively by practicing key techniques
  • We set clear achievable goals, like making eye contact and projecting energy, as we walk you through exercises, giving continual, encouraging feedback
  • We stop you in the moment to correct and guide you with positive criticism
  • We demonstrate your growing competence and control of the medium by videoing and playing back each practice

What we have discovered over hundreds of workshops with thousands of clients supports the efficacy of this approach. We find people are motivated by a challenge that they believe is attainable and will lead to success. They respond to manageable, bite size goals and encouraging feedback and praise. They learn by being stopped right in the moment and corrected in a supportive manner, before trying it again.

Most of our clients rave about their progress and – despite some initial trepidation – acknowledge that simply seeing themselves on camera may be the most valuable learning curve. It’s the indisputable, physical evidence of their competence and control.

No sticks necessary.

Julie Lindsay

Julie LindsayJulie Lindsay draws on a long career in television news to help clients speak in a way that is simple and persuasive. She began her journalism career with the BBC in London, reporting on everything from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, to war zones and revolutions. Next, came a move to the U.S. as anchor and editor on CNN International.

She also served as Chief Managing Editor with WebMD in the U.K. and then programming editor of Global Health Frontline News, making documentaries about kids fighting curable diseases around the world.