For every risk, some praise


When setting out as presenters, student need encouragement, not criticism

by Peter Watts

“a boy’s capacity may be dulled by too great strictness in correcting him. This, at first, gives him despondency, then pain, and at last aversion for study, and, which is worse of all, when he is afraid of everything, he attempts nothing; for, with his spirit, he loses all his power.”

These words were written 2000 years ago by the Roman orator and teacher, Quintilian. Requested by friends to write a training guide for young Roman noblemen, he commenced not by discussing rhetoric, but by examining the process of education itself.

Quintilian was not a fan of false praise. When a student failed, the master would let him know it. What strikes me in this passage however, is the awareness with which he also understood that hard criticism will, by stages, kill the desire to learn, and worst of all will kill the spirit that urges us to take risks and dare anything new in life.

He suggests that rather than criticise the student, it can be more useful to encourage the student to criticise someone else, by critiquing published speeches. Through picking out what was polished, beautiful, or powerful, they could find models of excellence with which to bolster their own speaking. By identifying what was verbose or ugly, the learner would see what should be avoided.

Through such a process of selection and rejection, along with time and application, the student would slowly develop a unique style of their own. This would only take place though, so long as overly harsh criticism hadn’t killed that spark of interest first.

Quintilian was writing specifically of the teacher/student relationship. I think we can also echo this to the relationship we have with ourselves. At whatever stage within a public speaking career we might be, we need to give ourselves permission to learn, and to experiment, and through that process to grow as presenters.

Overly harsh self-criticism shuts that process down and while keeping us safe from failure, also leads to decay, as skills decline through lack of challenge.

Give yourself permission to learn. Select a recent famous speech and study it. (There’s a fairly big one coming up next week that you might like to experiment on!) What do you admire? Choose something to emulate, and then try it out in your next presentation.

Having tried it out, review honestly how things went and then take time to praise yourself for trying something new.

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