A while back I heard a few people talking about public speaking. Person A was talking about their anxiety about making presentations. Trying to make him feel better, Person B said, “Public speaking is just like riding a bike!”
That got my attention. It seemed to be a comforting little sound bite. The only problem was that it was wrong. Public speaking is not like riding a bike. But it got me thinking about leadership communication and learning in general.
What does it mean if we say that something is like learning to ride a bike? We’re saying that it’s a skill that initially may seem pretty difficult to learn… but once we figure it out, we can do it successfully without thinking—even if we don’t do it at all for years at a time. It’s the reassuring idea that you’ve acquired a skill that you will never lose.
There’s no question that we all learn many skills that are like riding a bike. Driving is a good example. Most of us were white-knuckle drivers when we first got behind the wheel, but what about now? On long highway drives, I sometimes snap out of a daydream and realize I have no memory of anything that happened on the road in the last 15 minutes. That’s because I don’t have to think about driving when I do it—not unless there is intense traffic or some other unusual circumstance.
Many other skills are the same—reading, typing, doing simple math in your head, and so on. But quite a few sophisticated skills are quite unlike riding a bike. In other words, there are skills that are definitely learnable and where your level of mastery can improve substantially. However, you’ll probably never be really great at these skills without vigilant, ongoing practice, preparation, reflection, and reinforcement.
Some examples that come to mind with leadership communication: Selling, managing change, inspiring your teams, and, yes, public speaking. What’s so different about these areas? A few things:
- They involve an audience. If you were making your first speech in several months or years, would you find that you could do it almost unconsciously? I couldn’t. You can never be on auto-pilot when you’re delivering any sort of message to an audience. Just as the saying goes that you can never step in the same river twice, no two audiences are ever the same—even if you’re speaking to your internal teams each quarter. All sorts of circumstances change regularly, and you have to consciously adjust your message to address the ever-evolving needs of your audience.
- To maintain performance at a high level, sophisticated skills require ongoing practice. Yo-Yo Ma may be the world’s best cellist, but he estimates that he still puts in roughly 2,000 hours of practice each year. That’s an average of 5.5 hours daily. If he stopped practicing altogether, he obviously could still play the cello. But he wouldn’t be the best cellist for much longer.
- Skill mastery typically requires continual learning and reinforcement over time. Practice is critical, but it’s not sufficient. When you think about areas such as selling, motivating, and public speaking, there is always more to learn. There is evidence now that 90% of what we learn at a workshop, for example, dissipates within one year. To ensure the needle keeps moving in the right direction, you need to be a perpetual student. That may involve reading about the subject, hearing about it, going to a workshop, and getting expert advice. Whether you’re a tennis pro, a psychiatrist, or a VP of Sales, having a coach to help you with your real-time challenges can have an enormous impact to give you that reinforcement over time.
As a leader, you’ll no doubt hear from companies that want to offer you “quick-fix” solutions for perpetual leadership development challenges—areas such as executive presence, employee engagement, and public speaking.
But lasting, meaningful mastery is not a quick fix. Sophisticated skills need reinforcement: A better motto for these skills would be “use it or lose it.” Because some things are quite unlike riding a bike,