Is NLP pseudoscientific baloney or an effective tool for personal development?

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is often the subject of heated debate between believers, critics and crazies. Much like every conversation on the ‘net, it usually disintegrates into screaming insults and ad hominem attacks, which is great fun to read, so let’s get another one started.

What is the definition of NLP?

Cogs are turning: Did he take too much off the back?

“Neuro-Linguistic Programming n. a model of interpersonal communication chiefly concerned with the relationship between successful patterns of behaviour and the subjective experiences (esp. patterns of thought) underlying them; a system of alternative therapy based on this which seeks to educate people in self-awareness and effective communication, and to change their patterns of mental and emotional behaviour.” – [Oxford English Dictionary]

NLP could be described the application of the placebo effect. It involves doing whatever you can to make a person believe they’re going to change, and as such relies heavily upon your combined preconceptions. It uses some cunning quirks of language and exploits behavioural patterns to deepen a person’s responsiveness to suggestion. Really, it’s a model for learning.

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Can you learn confidence?

I’ve taken to calling what I do ‘Speech and Confidence Training’ – because when I said ‘voice coach’, people thought I taught people how to sing, and if anyone’s ever heard me sing they’d know that causes a few eyebrows to raise. But the new claim – that I train speech and confidence, also begs a few questions:

“Can you train confidence?”

Yes, I think you can. Well, actually, I don’t know if you can. I think I can.

Many people adhere to an established wisdom: Confidence is something that some people just have, and other people lack. That you can’t learn it any more than you can learn to have brown hair or to be taller.


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Why is public speaking scarier than death?

Public speaking is such a common fear, but why? I suspect evolution holds the answer.

Wikipedia reckons that the “most common fears are of: ghosts, the existence of evil powers, cockroaches, spiders, snakes, heights, water, enclosed spaces, tunnels and bridges, needles, social rejection, failure, examinations and public speaking.

Even thinking about it can cause some people's heart rate to rise

Now doesn’t public speaking make a strange addendum to that list? Apart from the first two – which are imaginary – the rest seem like perfectly rational fears of things that could result in physical harm.

[You might claim the the fear of rejection is not a physical harm, rejection could be: Romantic rejection, which reduces your chances of procreation; and social rejection, which to a pack animal would be a very dangerous situation. Both may lead to the gene’s inability to continue to replicate itself, which is why we enjoy other people’s company]

So how does public speaking arouse so much fear? Most things we fear, like spiders and rejection, are things that sneak up on us and shit on our happiness. But public speaking is, for most people, totally avoidable. But we don’t. We do it, we just get scared of it and do it anyway.

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Our schools are failing us: Teach kids public speaking!

Isn’t it strange that in school it’s compulsory to learn trigonometry, while public speaking is a voluntary after-school appendage?

Being funny helps

I spoke up in maths and asked the teacher how trigonometry was going to be important in later life. She gave me some strange nonsense story about working out how tall a building was, and then set us all an activity of finding out how we’d do that. I learned my lesson: Teachers don’t like students to question the pointlessness of their existence.

I never used trigonometry. Ever. I forgot everything I knew about it during some post-exam binge drinking. I don’t recall suffering from it, either. I don’t recall being at a job and having someone say ‘Use trigonometry to work out the height of that large pile of stuff’ or being attacked by a mythical beast that could only be conquered by the application of some elegant equations.

The truth is, aside from surveyors, mathematicians, engineers and fictional heroes from maths tuition computer games, nobody needs to use trigonometry, ever.

One thing I was not forced to do as a student was to learn public speaking and communication skills.

I voluntarily took drama and did an after-school Toastmasters course, and I joined the debating team – but these were all optional – unlike bloody trigonometry.

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