My new book won’t teach you how to sail, but it will help you shout instructions to your crew.

Over the holidays, I became a sailor. My long-awaited vacation included a sailing course through Offshore Sailing School in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. For seven straight days, I went through a sailing boot-camp that included learning sailing techniques, navigation, and an entirely new vocabulary.

For adult learners, it can be daunting to learn something new. Maybe you can relate to this: I really like being a subject-matter expert and doing something I’m already good at. But learning something new – and going through a period of not knowing – is a humbling experience.

As I went through the learning process, I couldn’t help but think of parallels between what I was learning in sailing school and what I teach in public speaking. So before the suntan from my trip fades, I wanted to share 5 public speaking lessons learned from sailing.

  1. Be ready to not have the answer at first. That first day out on the water, we had no instincts to rely on. We literally didn’t know what to do. Anytime you learn a new skill, there is a basic period of learning in which you are not the expert. And that’s OK – that is your starting point. It’s a necessary feeling of discomfort that I guarantee will pass. Give yourself space to not know exactly how to do something.
  2. You don’t have to learn on your own. Could you imagine taking out a sailboat without any training or guidance? It’s incredibly helpful to have someone provide guidance and feedback along the way so you don’t have to learn through mistake after mistake. No need to re-invent the wheel; use all the resources available to you. For public speaking, you have a number of options. You can learn online, through books, coaching, workshops, or a club like Toastmasters.
  3. Any classroom experience must be followed by real-life application. While we had learned the basic sailing concepts from the book, using it out on the water in 30-knot wind gusts was a very different story. It wasn’t until we applied the knowledge, made mistakes, and corrected our mistakes that we really learned how to sail. Anytime you learn something new in a book or course, immediately try it out in the real world to cement the learning. See how it works during a pitch or presentation, then adapt it and try again. This is what makes the difference between knowing the concepts and consistently demonstrating the concepts.
  4. When you practice every day, you get better every single day. On our first day of sailing, I thought there was no way I would feel comfortable sailing at the end of the week. There was simply too much to learn! But with daily practice, I slowly started to feel more comfortable. The last day on the water, we students dropped the instructor off at the dock and took our 51-ft sailboat out for 24 hours – by ourselves. You have daily opportunities to speak all around you – on a conference call, in a meeting, or at a networking event. Practice these skills every day and all of a sudden they will feel like second nature to you.
  5. The best laid plans change once you get out on the water. While we would chart our course in advance, we had to be flexible according to the wind speed, other boats, and weather – all of which could (and did) change with a minute’s notice. You can spend weeks practicing your speech, only to have it change in the face of room dynamics, the day’s news, or the audience’s energy level. Be flexible and willing to adapt so you don’t get thrown off course.

In sailing as in public speaking, you can get to a place where you are both enjoying the moment and constantly on the lookout for changes in the environment. It takes practice, feedback, and real-world application. One week-long course isn’t enough – it becomes a lifelong journey.