No substitute for real experience

Hunter S. Thompson

“A bartender with scar tissue all over his knuckles will hit faster and harder than a karate-trained novice who has never been bloodied.”  - Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels, 1966

This quote is about fighting. If you’ve never been in a proper fight (like me!) you’ll be no match for someone who has been in hundreds.  No matter how many self defense classes you’ve attended.

Imagine you’ve been going to karate classes for five years.  You’re used to the controlled environment, the respect for your opponent, the belt hierarchy.  Now imagine you’ve just been hit in the face with a bottle and an enraged twenty-five stone biker is running at you with a knife.  You’re judgment will be clouded by fear, and all those years of karate training will be forgotten in an instant.

I think this quote is applicable to so many aspects of life.  You can learn anything in classes: karate, foriegn languages, public speaking; but without being tested in the real world you’ll never know how good you really are.

There is lots of public speaking advice on the Internet and vast numbers of videos of people performing fantastic speeches.  I think that with these resources it is easy to become complacent.  You might start rating your public speaking ability based on the number of techniques you know or your collection of anecdotes.  But when it comes to giving your first speech you’re going to come across all the not-so-obvious aspects of public speaking that any seasoned veteran would be prepared for.  What is your posture like when you’re not paying attention to it?  What does your voice sound like when you’re nervous? What should you do if no one laughs at your jokes?

Toastmasters, and other practical resources (i.e. anywhere where you speak and are assessed), are fantastic for gaining speaking experience.  Learning public speaking is all about making mistakes and learning from them.  Joining a speaking club will give you the opportunity to do this in a supportive environment.  However I can’t shake the feeling that Toastmasters is creating “karate-trained novices”: people who have developed skills in a supportive environment where a round of applause is guaranteed, but they remain untested with aggressive or unmotivated audiences.

I would urge anyone developing their public speaking skills to speak in real environments.  This is the only way to really test your public speaking arsenal. The only way to continue developing your skills after the inevitable plateau of Internet learning. The only way to develop your scar tissue.

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