Be a great communicator at work, don’t learn public speaking

18 Nov 2020

When you think about improving your communication skills, I bet learning public speaking is high on your list of ideas. We are bombarded with images and videos of people on stage, giving inspiring talks and being seen as an expert. They make it look so easy, and we see just how powerful a great communicator can be.

On the face of it, public speaking looks like the perfect way to improve your communication skills. But I’m here to tell you that if you want to be a great communicator, don’t learn public speaking. For most of us, a course in public speaking is the wrong way to improve our communication skills.

Public speaking is scary

The first problem with public speaking courses, and it’s quite a big problem, is that public speaking is regularly listed in the top 10 fears in Western countries. (one survey listed it as number one). For some reason, we’ve convinced ourselves that the best way to improve our communication skills is to do the one thing we fear the most.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for facing my fears, but research has shown that fear is not the best motivator for success. If you have to fight a strong fear every time you try to learn something you will find it much harder to make progress. I also bet you won’t enjoy it very much either.

There is too much to learn

Secondly, public speaking courses teach a huge range of topics. Sure, they teach skills that can help with communication at work. Skills like getting to the point, answering questions clearly, not rambling, being honest, and sticking to one topic at a time.

But public speaking courses teach much more than that. They include topics like vocal variety, intonation, rhetorical devices, what to do with your hands when on stage. All kinds of things you don’t need to use when talking to your boss about the team’s performance scores from last week.

If you want to improve your communication at work there are books and courses that help address specific workplace communication topics (like this great book on how to start work conversations that get results). Don’t learn public speaking just so you can improve workplace communication — it is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It will work, but it isn’t the best tool for the job.

Public speaking can create bad habits for workplace communication

Finally, public speaking courses can teach you habits that are actually bad for workplace communication. The biggest of these is the focus on using stories to engage and communicate a message. That may work well when you are standing on a stage giving a speech trying to keep the attention of an audience. But it is a terrible thing to do if you are updating your team on the latest changes in the work from home policy. No one wants to sit in a meeting listening to someone say ‘Let me tell you about a time when…’.

Great communication in most jobs involves delivering information clearly and concisely, and that doesn’t usually require a compelling story.

What to do instead

Don’t get me wrong, I think learning public speaking is a great thing to do. There are many benefits to be gained from the diverse techniques and improved confidence that comes from delivering speeches. It is also an important skill for executives and senior managers to have. For most people, those who want to be a better communicator but have no need (or desire!) to get up on stage and address a room full of people, there are other, better ways to learn communication skills.

So before you jump into learning public speaking, try the following things instead:

  1. Ask your colleagues, boss, or team what specific communication skills you would benefit most from learning.
  2. Find books, online courses, coaches or mentors that teach those specific skills.
  3. Focus on improving those skills.

These steps will improve the skills that the people around you value the most. Don’t learn public speaking. Instead of using a sledgehammer, you can pick the right tool for the job.