Guila Muir

Developing trainers, presenters and facilitators to make a difference

Four Lessons from the Open Water

by Guila Muir

How is Public Speaking Like Open Water Swimming?

Public Speaking is like Open Water SwimmingI live in Seattle, which is surrounded by water. Several years ago, as a relatively new swimmer, I discovered a new addiction: swimming in Seattle’s lakes and Sound. As an adult new swimmer, I face many challenges, especially when participating in a race. I often feel inept, fear looking foolish, and sometimes my performance anxiety is almost unbearable.

Read that last sentence again. If you have ever given a presentation, do my symptoms sound familiar?

For the last ten years, I have helped professionals from all walks of life present more effectively. But my new-found challenges with the open water have allowed me to empathize more fully with my own clients’ experiences as they strive to be the best presenters they can be.

I’d like to offer you four lessons I’ve learned from the open water. They are simple but profound. I guarantee these lessons will help you improve your public speaking.

Open Water Lesson #1:
I must be in touch with my body. You must be in touch with yours.

Nothing that goes on in the water is “dreamy” for me, as a new swimmer. When I swim in that cold Puget Sound, my mind never wanders. I am totally focused on what I am doing. I feel things from the inside out, from the inside of my toes to my chilly face. I am totally present.

Presenters run into trouble when they lose touch with their physical selves. Far too many speakers believe that everything they need to present effectively is in their heads—or in the technology they are using.

The truth is, you present from your body. I’m not referring to body movement. I’m talking about the magic that occurs when you truly inhabit your body as a speaker. Suddenly, you breathe easier. Your mental capacity is stunningly clear. When you feel fully present in your body, there is no space for fear.

TIP: To inhabit your body, get into it before you speak. Slip into a nearby restroom. Go into a stall. Stand with your knees slightly bent. Feel the weight in your feet. Focus on this dynamic body. It will not let you down or let you forget anything if you fully reside within it.

But none of this will work without enough oxygen. Remember to breathe into your body…all the way to the tips of your toes.

Open Water Lesson #2:
The environment bombards us with input. We ignore it at our own risk.

Much more than swimming in a pool, open-water swimming is fraught with potential dangers and excitements. Everything around me changes all the time: the size of the swells, the sudden appearance of fish, logs, or even seals, the distant sound of a motorboat. Everything around me is input. I ignore it at my own risk.

As a speaker, input surrounds you. It can take many forms: enthusiastic or disinterested audience members, environmental distractions, structured feedback from peers, even your own internal reactions to what someone has said.

It’s often good to respond to input. If you never do, you will alienate your audiences. However, if you try to address every piece of input, you may well experience the speaker’s nightmare. You may lose your focus, forget what you’re going to say, and get lost.

Input will always bombard us as we present. It offers us many invitations, some very exciting. When you make a conscious choice whether or not to respond, you remain in control as a speaker.

TIP: Deal effectively with input by:

  • Being continually open to it.
  • Then, choosing how to respond, if at all.

Open Water Lesson #3:
The art of open water swimming is all about connection. The art of presenting is too.

When I swim, I feel one with nature, water, plant life, the motion in my body, my swim buddies…everything around me. Nothing else in my adult life has allowed me to experience this profound a state of connectedness. I become the absolutely “best me.”

The art of presenting is all about connecting: with your material, your audience, and yourself. When you connect with your audience members through eye contact and openness, you establish a relationship. That relationship helps you enormously. It helps you reduce your anxiety, disarm hostility, and sell your ideas. It humanizes the presentation by establishing a non-verbal dialogue.

TIP: Right before presenting, tell yourself: Presenting is a relationship activity, not a performance activity. Connection trumps all.Open Water Lesson #4:
Discovery is key. By discovering something new each time you present, you become enamored.

Every time I go into the water, I see and experience new things. Swimming off of Canada’s Vancouver Island, I remember how shocked I was to see the many bright red starfish below me in the ultra-clear water. I love swimming on my back, looking up into the amazing sky, or waving to the surprised guy in his backyard as he lights his barbeque or takes a walk with his child. Discovery is a delightful endorphin!

Professional presenters depend on new discoveries. They may deliver the same speech dozens of times. They keep it fresh by developing new anecdotes to illustrate a theme, by re-wording sections, by engaging in more dialogue with the audience. All are risks; all are discoveries. The most boring speakers are those who never take a chance, who never try something new.

TIP: Know the core of your message so well that you can remain open to discovering and trying new things. Achim Nowak, a renowned speech professional, writes in Power Speaking (2004:) “The moment we stop trying so hard to control, we actually gain a sense of control we did not have before.”Finally-It’s All About Flow.

As a newer swimmer, I will always experience tension between the level of my skills and the challenges put before me. I’m never 100% confident. Yet each time I put my whole self into the act of swimming, I experience a state of grace. I become even more addicted!

Achim Nowak writes, “Public speaking, at its best, has the power to transport both speaker and audience into a heightened state of engagement akin to what we experience in high-flow recreational activities.”

If you’ve ever lost yourself doing something you love, you know that your self-consciousness disappears. Even time seems to change. We most often reach this optimal state of “flow” when our focused efforts, combined with our own level of skills, stretch us to the limit. We are lost in the activity. We love it!

And YES, you can reach a state of “flow” through public speaking. When you invest yourself totally into the act of presenting, it all becomes easy. You’ll slip through the water like a fish.

Guila Muir is an accomplished open-water swimmer. Since learning to swim five years ago, she has participated in many open-water swimming events, including the swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco in 2006.


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Guila Muir is the premiere trainer of trainers, facilitators, and presenters on the West Coast of the United States. Since 1994, she has helped thousands of professionals improve their training, facilitation, and presentation skills. Find out how she can help transform you from a boring expert to a great presenter:

© Guila Muir.



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