What figure skating teaches us about public speaking

For the last few days my morning gym routine has been slightly brightened by the ISU European Figure Skating Championships. It’s one of those things that many of us might not choose to watch at home, but when it’s on in the background as we struggle through the self-imposed post-Christmas cardio-centric workout, it’s spellbinding. So in my recent hours of staring at the figure skating, it occurred to me that aside from amazing athleticism and techniques, figure skating teaches us a useful thing or two for other performances, not least public speaking.

1) Technical excellence + personality = top marks

I know next to nothing about figure skating (please accept my apologies for inaccuracies here if you do), so I can’t comment on technical excellence, other than to say that those in the championships clearly had it, they are not an odd birthday-at-the-ice-rink-disco kind of people, but clearly train all the time. But even to the naked, far-from-expert eye, what made the winners stand out was the mixture of that technical excellence with something of their own personality.

When you’re presenting (what ever you’re presenting) it is not enough to know how to project your voice, vary your tone, or enunciate the words, you need to mix in something of yourself. This might be a story, a joke or a smile. It might be the different way you have prepared your slides, it could be your way of interacting with the audience. You need to find how to be yourself within your presentations and you will be more convincing once you do.

2) Learn how to present similar content in an interesting or new way

From what I understand of figure skating there are a number of moves that the judges expect the participants to make during their limited time on the ice. Since that time is the duration of a piece of music, there are only a certain number of combinations that can be presented, yet most performers manage to make their piece seem different and engage the audience all the way through.

When speaking in public, you often find a similar situation: there are a number of elements that must be included in your presentation whether you like it or not For example, if you are preparing to report to your board with the aim of getting a thumbs up for more resources, you’ll need to explain an internal and external analysis, an overview of your department’s results, an explanation of how this fits into the company’s overall goals, what you could achieve were you to receive more resources, etc. A seasoned board will have seen such a presentation time and time again (maybe even in the same meeting), so like the figure skaters, you’ll need to come up with a new way of making it interesting and keeping them engaged.

3) The show must go on

Anyone who’s done any type of performing art will have the idea of “the show must go on” ingrained in them. An actor who forgets their lines; a pianist who plays the wrong note; and our friends the figures skaters… none of them have the option of giving up or starting again when on stage, they just have to keep going. While we may not all realize that the actor playing Hamlet has skipped a few lines of Shakespeare’s prose or that the note played by the pianist was actually a B flat instead of a B natural, in figure skating the mistakes are spectacular. Over and over, these highly trained athletes end up with their backsides skimming across the ice, but every single time they get up and within seconds are back into their routine. The recovery time is less than a couple of seconds.

Of course the audience notices, as they do when a well-prepared speaker pauses a little too long, but the mistake is quickly forgotten as we are back to being enthralled by the performance. It’s a shame then that this attitude isn’t more prevalent in public speaking, where paper rustling, nervous laughter or apologies after the mistake often dig the speaker into a deeper hole.

Luckily public speaking is more like theatre than figure skating, and the audience usually has no idea about the bits we accidentally left out (unless we make it obvious). So, when dealing with our attitude to our own mistakes, we should be more like the figure skaters who unashamedly get right back into their routine in a blink of an eye.

4) Everybody needs a coach

All of the figure skaters, like most athletes, have a coach, you see them at the end of the routine hugging the skaters and supporting them as they anxiously await the judges’ verdicts. While they probably do a lot more, for these purposes they are performance supporters, there to accompany the skater through hours (or probably years) of practice, give an honest opinion or kick up the backside when needed, and a pat on the back after the performance.

If we are serious about becoming excellent public speakers, we need a coach. I’m not talking about a professional coach (although that of course is an option) I’m talking about a close friend, relative or partner who will happily sit through a run through of your speech and tell you what works and what doesn’t, and how you could make it better. If you don’t have this person, you’ll just have to be your own coach. Video your rehearsal and play it back and be your own critic. Just remember not to be too hard on yourself and take a friendly approach.

So, clearly, public speaking and figure skating are quite different beasts. Figure skaters are probably not great public speakers and public speakers are almost certainly not great figure skaters. Also the sport hardly provides the full curriculum for learning how to speak in public (it misses some pretty fundamental areas such as empathy), it does, however, give some pointers and performance inspiration… along with adding a bit of sparkle and grace to my otherwise not very glamorous workout.


About Katie Annice Carr

Creativity, Communication and Leadership facilitator, coach and consultant.

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