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What Pilot Training Can Teach You About Public Speaking!


Our mental capacity to concentrate is limited. I like to think of this capacity as a bucket – a brain bucket. It has a finite amount of space you can fill with simultaneous tasks and each of those tasks takes some amount of space.

Think about when you’re learning to drive, for instance. Your bucket might be about 90% full thinking about how much to press the accelerator, when to change gears and syncronising the clutch, where you are in the lane, what happened to that car that was behind you. It takes a huge amount of conscious effort to concentrate on what is really, a complex task. And this leaves, say 10% of your mental capacity to deal with new tasks. So when some @#$%! pulls out in front of you, it’s not hard to quickly exceed the limit of your brain bucket.

After many months of practice and having mastered that handy skillset, driving is autonomous. We don’t even think about it and all that cornering, braking, changing lanes business just happens on autopilot while we sing along to the radio, think about a coffee date, stress about being late and text a friend (and making sure the boys in blue don’t see the latter). This is why we learn tasks to become second nature; so they become easier and we can do them autonomously, taking up less like 90% of our brain bucket and something more like 20%, and maybe 10% or 5% as we do it more and more and more.

It will relate to basically any concentration or learned task you can think of. Over time we make it an autonomous or sub-conscious effort, leaving more real estate in our brain bucket to think about additional tasks.

Tasks at first take up a lot of your brain bucket, or mental capacity for concentration, but over time your mind learns to make these autonomous or sub-conscious. The lesson here is to realise it is ok to work on one thing at a time, to begin with basics and build over time.

So what does that mean for public speaking?

Let us come to that flying training I promised. In pilot training there is a concept that is designed for prioritisation of mental tasks and ultimately, safety. It has a memorable, rhyming mnemonic: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. And the idea is, when under a high mental load, to do these things in that order.

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

Aviate. This means, fly the aircraft, make sure it is flying in a stable attitude with the engine happy and overall, a platform to undertake the next tasks.

Navigate. Now that you’ve got the aircraft doing what you want it to do, fly it where you want to go. If you’re not facing the right direction or at the right altitude, fix it now.

Communicate. Only when you’re in control of the aircraft and burning fuel in the right direction do you contact air traffic control or other aircraft and let them know your intentions.

As you may imagine, doing things in a different order is rather unwise for numerous reasons. No use talking to air traffic control when the aircraft is veering to one side and draining fuel from the wrong tank. Each of these tasks; aviate, navigate and communicate are a significant mental task and NEED to be prioritised. They simply can’t all be done at the same time by the same grey matter! Additionally, realise that it is quite acceptable to forgo more complex jobs while you’re mastering a more basic or preliminary task. It is understandable to be working on one aspect of a complex task at a time.

When speaking then, remember to work on one thing at a time. Great speakers are a symphony of words, voice, physical, audience participation, visual aids – the works! But each of those is a task in itself, learned and built upon the foundation of the previous.

Remember how long it took to learn to drive a car properly and safely? Think about how long it takes a pilot to re-correct from an unusual situation while flying without panicking. You may imagine the very same for presentations.

Want to know what my priorities are when public speaking? Come along to our next presentation skills workshop and I promise I’ll share with you my proven steps that have worked for me and countless clients. This method alone is worth the investment!

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