Speaking Tips: Mentor and Be Mentored

For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. As I slow down my own speaking career, I’ve decided to put some of that mentoring advice into Internet form. And one of the key things I advise new speakers to do is to sit on both sides of the mentoring fence.

It’s a pretty simple thing: If you’re a speaker, look for a mentor. This is the first thing any newcomer to Toastmasters does—pick a mentor—so it’s not like this is rocket science. I had a few mentors when I started teaching at DevelopMentor two decades ago, and I learned a ton from watching them do their thing.

But there’s more to learning than just learning.

Maths, teaching, and me

Many, many years ago, in grade school, I confidently informed a math teacher that I didn’t need to do the in-class exercise—I understood the concept (heck if I can remember what it was; probably something like multiplication or something really hard like that).

The teacher looked at me, then said, “Well, fine, if you understand it, that’s great, you don’t need to do the work. But could you do me a favor and explain it to your classmate over here? He’s still struggling.” Brim-full of confidence, of course I strode over to the other desk where my classmate was still working to understand it (whatever it was we were taught), and Lo and Behold! I couldn’t really teach it to him, either.

Because, as my math teacher then rather gently and kindly explained to me, “You can’t teach what you don’t know.”

Political science, lectures, and me

What he neglected to tell me—which I discovered for myself years later—is that teaching a subject also helps you learn it a lot, lot better. I found that out while in some college study sessions; I had this habit of reciting the professor’s Poli Sci lectures in her voice and accent, and wouldn’t you know it, it was vastly easier to recall her lectures when I did. I always ended up with some interesting new insights on the subject whenever I did that, and in some cases, was able to work that into essay questions during tests and papers.

You cant teach what you don’t know, but you learn more when you teach.

Mentoring me, mentoring you

If you’re looking to be a speaker, offer to help those who are also just getting started. The act of looking critically at their abstracts and presentations will help you better critique your own. This is because you will be able to critique their work far more easily than you can your own, since you will not have the emotional connection to the work that the other speaker has to it; and once you get more accustomed to judging a work in a more objective and unemotional manner, you’ll start doing it to your own work more effectively.

And yes, I can now let the cat out of the bag: All these years that I’ve been mentoring speakers, if you thought I was doing it to “give back to the community”, now you know I’m actually just a selfish conniving manipulator: this entire time I’ve been mentoring others, I’ve actually been learning more about speaking by teaching, and getting better myself as a result. What a jerk!

(Well…. OK, you caught me; that’s not the only reason I’ve been doing it. I also do it because I just like teaching. And, sure, whatever, “community”, we can go with that too.)

Point is, even if you try to mentor somebody who’s just getting started as you are, you’ll effectively be forming a study group, critiquing each other and learning from both positions. And that, dear readers, is a large part of how we get better.