What follows is an excerpt from the first draft of the Introduction. There will more than likely be changes made by the time the book is in its final form. For more insight into the the content of Public Speaking Super Powers, you can read the post that started it all here or read quotes from individual Featured Speakers on their bio pages.
Introduction: Superman or Batman?
Is Public Speaking a Learned Skill or Something You Are Born Being Able to Do?
In the world of comics there are three ways superheroes gain their powers: By birth (think Superman), by training (think Batman) or by some freak accident (think Spider-Man). In the real world, however, you can’t gain great skill through some freak accident. That leaves us with birth or training. And so, it is with the skill of speaking in public.
But is that true? Are there people who are simply born with a natural talent for speaking? Can the rest of us hope to achieve great skill in this area without hard work?
Research suggests that training and hard work trumps talent, if talent is something that exists at all.
Before we explore the evidence, let’s make sure we are all on the same page with what talent and skill are.
Talent, in general, is thought to be a raw ability that a person is born with. It “is said to be a special ability to do something without prior experience, study, or tutelage. It is often classified or compared to an instinct or a certain flair for doing something without extra effort and almost perfect execution.”1 In other words, talent is something we inherit through our genes and only some people have it in any particular area.
A skill, on the other hand, is something that can be learned and honed over time. It “can be learned by anyone who has the capacity, potential, and willingness to learn.”2
The Holy Grail of talent vs. skill research is discovering how to identify talent early on. However, no matter how far and wide they search, this identifier has yet to be found. In fact, several researchers have compiled overviews of research in the area of talent vs. skill and discovered that there are lots of contradictions, as well as evidence that both “prove” and “disprove” the concept of talent. Elaine Wolstencroft put it this way, talent “appears to depend on genetics, environment, opportunity, encouragement, and the effect of these variables on physical and psychological traits.”3 In addition, “interest, desire, persistence and self-motivation”4 are also very important in the development of skill.
Michael J. Howe and his colleagues came to a similar conclusion. “An analysis of positive and negative evidence and arguments suggest that differences in early experiences, preferences, opportunities, habits, training, and practice are the real determinants of excellence.”5
Two of the questions I asked the Featured Speakers I interviewed for this book was, “Do you believe that public speaking is a learned skill? Or is it something you are born being able to do?” Thirty percent believed that it was purely a learned skill. An additional 66 percent believed it was a combination of talent and training.
Research backs up the majority opinion. Evidence suggests that hard work – concentrated and focused training over a period of time – trumps inborn talent, but with a caveat. “Even if you weren’t born with genius in your genes, you can outperform the smartest of individuals as long as you work hard and the latter doesn’t,” says Piers Steel Ph.D. “Also, the differences between the smart and the not-so-smart shrink quite a bit if they both work hard. That means that talent still counts, but hard work puts you right up there.”6
Research suggests that even if you have talent if you don’t work at your natural skill, you won’t achieve excellence. So, what is talent in reality if not “raw ability”?
Everyone is born with innate predispositions – both physical and psychological – for certain skills. For example, long fingers give you an edge as a piano player; curiosity can give you an edge in science. However, without the right encouragement, environment, and opportunities, these predispositions can remain undeveloped.
This leads to the idea that one “harvests” talent, because “nature means nothing without nurture.”7 The idea is that someone has a predisposition toward a skill, which leads them to pursue that skill with interest and, at times, obsession. This person’s passion for developing their skills gives them the stamina and the discipline to put in the hours of practice necessary for excellence in that skill.
There is also the element of environment. Some people may not even discover their natural talent without encouragement from parents, teachers, and others. Researchers have found that, at least with musicians, “the majority freely admit that without strong parental encouragement to practice they would never have done the amounts of regular practising [sic] needed to make good progress. Strong and sustained parental encouragement to practise [sic] was evident in virtually all successful young musicians.”8
Opportunity, which leads to experience, factors into the development of “talent.” Experiences literally change the way the mammalian brain is wired. This is true with both positive and negative experiences. And these changes can lead to differences among people in how they experience touch, sight and sound.9
The bottom line is this: There are a wide variety of factors that make a person good at something (appear to have talent). “Differences between people in the ease in which a particular skill is acquired may be caused by any of a number of contributing factors. These include various motivational and personality influences as well as previous learning experiences that equip a person with knowledge, attitudes, skills, and self-confidence.”10
Therefore, is public speaking a learned skill or a talent you can be born with? Yes.
To be an excellent speaker, it helps to have a predisposition for a wide variety of abilities that play into the skill, such as comfort in front of an audience, a pleasing voice, and critical thinking. However, all of those abilities can be learned and honed over time.
“Talent in anything … is always going to be a very complicated combination of a multitude of genes that all contribute in some small way.”11 However, “excellence in any field comes from learning, practice, or through innate talent. Helen Keller is a perfect example of a person who surmounted physical disabilities to develop skills in many fields of life. This she did through sheer determination and dedication.”12
Scott Barry Kaufman puts it this way: “All traits, including the ability to deliberately practice, involve a mix of nature and nurture. In fact, there is no such thing as innate talent. That’s a myth that is constantly perpetuated, despite the fact that most psychologists recognize that all skills require practice and support for their development – even though there are certainly genetic influences (which influence our attention and even our passions).”13
Regardless of whether you are Superman or Batman when it comes to speaking ability, you will need to put in time and effort to achieve excellence. And this is a good thing because it means if you want to become a good speaker, you can!
- “Difference Between Talent and Skill,” www.differencebetween.net/language/words-language/difference-between-talent-and-skill
- Wolstencroft, Elaine (ed.), 2002, “Talent Identification and Development: An Academic Review,” a report for sportscotland by the University of Edinburgh
- Howe, Michael J. A., & Davidson J. W., & Sloboda, J. A. (1998 in press) Innate Talents: Reality Or Myth. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 21 399-442. cogprints.org/656/1/innate.htm
- “Hard Work Beats Talent (but Only If Talent Doesn’t Work Hard” by Piers Steel Ph.D., www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-procrastination-equation/201110/hard-work-beats-talent-only-if-talent-doesn-t-work-hard
- “The Genetic Basis of Talent” blog.twedt.com/archives/1236
- Howe, Michael J. A., & Davidson J. W., & Sloboda, J. A. Ibid.
- “The Genetic Basis of Talent” Ibid.
- “Difference Between Talent and Skill,” Ibid.
- “Practice Alone Does Not Make Perfect, Studies Find” by Scott Barry Kaufman, blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/practice-alone-does-not-make-perfect-studies-find