Why we’d become better speakers if we only dared to fail

Ole Tillmann

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I regularly go skateboarding with my nine-year-old daughters. At the Berlin skate park where we go, we are surrounded by really good skateboarders from Germany and around the world, some of them even pros. We watch them do their fantastic tricks and flips. My daughters are also very good already. Nevertheless, they still get angry with themselves after one fall too many.

One afternoon, Charlotte was having a particularly tough time. She was so angry at herself that she just didn’t want to skate anymore, and planted herself at the edge of the park to sulk. I sat down on the ground next to her and watched the other skateboarders.

Me: “Look at those guys. They’re really good, aren’t they?”Charlotte: “Yes, but I’m not.”Me: “Come on, let’s count how many times they fall.”
It was by counting that we realized that even the really good skateboarders regularly messed up their tricks. They failed just as often as the beginners, the only difference was that they did so on another skill level, which made the failures less noticeable. What was interesting was how easygoing they were about their mistakes. If they didn’t pull off a move, they simply tried it again. That’s how people improve a skill—any skill. This bolstered Charlotte’s courage.

There’s another thing you can notice when watching those guys skateboard: Every talented boarder has their own style—a unique character—whether soaring, light, elegant, forceful, artistic, or sporty. Like skill, style can only develop when you dare to follow your own path. Learning to walk means stumbling from time to time.

The same applies to giving presentations, playing the role of moderator, or speaking in front of an audience. We are so afraid of failure that we don’t dare to just be ourselves. This again inhibits us from improving and developing our own style. Even the best speakers in the world aren’t perfect—they are just more at ease with their inadequacies. If they stumble, they get back up and try again. That’s exactly what sets them above the rest.

It’s just like what one American boy at the skate park said to me after a fall: “Learn to fall. Fall to learn.”

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Public Speaking Creative confidence Leadership Growth mindset