When Less Can Be Better Than More

I’ve just been re-reading Tim Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Work” and it has been interesting to note how well my ideas about learning dovetail with Gallwey’s principles.

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Gallwey spawned a revolution in the field of coaching, starting back in the 1970s.

Gallwey’s passion was for tennis, so he became curious about how some people got good at the game and others never rose beyond a certain level of ability. Curiously, this difference in skill was not just down to effort and Gallwey, like me, was no believer in ‘natural ability’.

He theorised that we often behave as though we have two conflicting viewpoints, which he called ‘Self 1’ and ‘Self 2’. In Gallwey’s model, Self 2 is the ‘authentic’ self – the person we truly can be when we are at our natural best. By contrast, Self 1 is an agent of unintentional conflict or interference. Self 1 interferes with our natural flow by distracting us with instructions, critical inner dialogue and the need to consciously micro-manage our actions.

By this philosophy, being mindful of detailed instructions can actually get in the way of our natural ability. Gallwey found that normal learning methods actually encourage the types of behaviour that get in the way of excellence!

Independently, I discovered this to be true for activities like public speaking. If you browse the internet or look in most books on public speaking, they give you a long laundry list of things you must do and things you mustn’t do.

For example, think about eye contact for a moment. Back when I started learning to be a trainer, I remember being told that I must give everyone ‘good eye contact’ when speaking. I asked for clarification – how much eye contact, or how often is good? I was told that two seconds was the norm. The entire learning group tried it out for a period of time – in presentations, conversations and everyday life. We all privately agreed that this felt awkward, forced and weird. And that the people we spoke with found it uncomfortable too.

Years later, I realised that it was the forced nature of the activity that made that type of training so unsuccessful. A simple – normally unconscious – activity had been made too conscious, too obvious. This was Gallwey’s ‘Self 1’ trying to call the shots instead of allowing Self 2’s natural, authentic eye contact.

So if traditional methods of instruction don’t really work very well, how can we learn to be excellent at what we do? Gallwey’s solution was simple, incredibly elegant and revolutionary. Anything we focus on can become part of our natural learning experience. So the instructor’s job was to focus the student’s awareness on where the learning was – in a non-judgemental way. Gallwey stopped telling people how to stand and move and started asking them to do things like watch the seam of the tennis ball as it approached.

By giving the student less to do, they had more faculties of attention – of focus – available for the true task at hand.

This was my aim when I wrote Presenting Power – to give people less to do and focus their awareness where it is most useful for their learning. Ten years of experience have taught me that this approach works better that the more traditional ones – and in some crucial ways.

Only last night, I saw an excellent example on the TV show ‘Dragon’s Den‘. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it involves entrepreneurs pitching for investment to a panel of five wealthy businesspeople. In last night’s show, I saw the worst pitch ever and it was painful to watch. I sat and squirmed as one woman completely froze about half-way through her well-rehearsed pitch.

Her mind went blank and she just couldn’t pick up the thread of her presentation. As I see it, this happened for several reasons.

  •  we have best recall when we are in the same state of mind in which we learned the information

This premise is well supported by psychological research – she learned her pitch in a relaxed frame of mind and tried to recall it while under considerable stress. Consequently, the information just wasn’t there when she needed it.

  • she learned the pitch in a linear way, by rote.

Think of it like a (now old-fashioned) vinyl record. The record follows a single, steadily spiralling groove, all the way to the centre. Now picture someone bumping the turntable. The record skips – and doesn’t always find its groove again. This is what the speaker sounded like when she lost her cool – a broken record. She tried to start again and again. In the end, she just couldn’t pick up the thread of her pitch and had to stop right there.

Really, it wasn’t her fault. The method itself let her down by creating too much interference.

In public speaking, the voice of Self 1 – the voice of interference – is that of stress. This is the voice of ‘what should I be doing?’ or ‘what are they thinking?’ or ‘am I doing this right?’ This is the ‘what if?’ voice.

I’ve seen so many people struggle with a memorised pitch – I used to struggle with it myself. Fortunately, I found a better way to do things. I’ve had experienced speakers ask me how I remember everything when I give a 9-day seminar without using any notes. They usually think I’ve got some some sort of special memory technique, or that I’ve used my skill at hypnosis to memorise everything in a trance-like state 🙂

I reality, all I need to do is remain in the right state of mind and remember only two simple things per segment. Those are the only elements that are really crucial to being an engaging and informative speaker. And a segment, for me, is about 45 minutes. So that’s only 16 simple things to remember per day as a trainer. And only two at a time. The detail of how to do this is described in ‘Presenting Power‘.

Gallwey’s ‘Inner Game’ and my own methods for public speaking make one thing clear: You can really do more with less. And in some cases – with the right knowledge and awareness – less can be better than more.

When Less Can Be Better Than More by
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