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The parables between riding a motorbike and giving presentations in English.

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

As some of you will already know, I’m currently taking motorbike training and the whole experience has put me way outside of my comfort zone. It’s also reminded me of the importance of self compassion when dealing with our fears and shown me how similar the whole process is to giving presentations in English as a non native speaker.

Despite already having a driving licence, here in Germany adding a bike licence to my existing car licence has required me to attend 20 hours of theory lessons and resit my theory test. Even with a lively, entertaining instructor all this theory is pretty dry and boring a lot like learning grammar and vocabulary. Preparing for the theory test was just like preparing for any other test, you just have to memorise facts and learn what the test wants from you. And, just like English language tests, driving theory asks you to reproduce information in artificial situations, give and calculate values which you’d never need to recall exactly in a real life situation.

In real life most native speakers are not consciously aware of why they choose present perfect continuous rather than past simple, in fact a big percentage of natives couldn’t name the tenses they are using at all! Similarly, a experienced driver isn’t consciously calculating stopping distances while driving using (V/10^2)/2 But, both the native speaker and the experienced driver have spent time studying the basic rules and developed an instinct for speaking, or driving. Yes, there are times where they both misjudge situations, in speaking and driving and accidents do happen. Both can be embarrassing, thankfully however in normal society mistakes in grammar and vocabulary rarely prove to be deadly.

Having sat through and passed the theory, I’m now finally able to get on a bike and start riding. Like the language learner using my freshly learned theory in practice is pretty scary. The most difficult part is starting, closely followed by stopping gracefully and not stalling! And that’s why, when starting out as a novice we use standard phrases or procedures. For the non native speaker giving a presentation this could be:

“Good morning everyone, and welcome to xzy. My name is (insert name) and today it’s my pleasure to talk to you you about the fantastic progress we’ve been making in abc project”.

For me riding a motorbike that translates into:

“Stand up, clutch in, engine on, check in neutral, select 1st gear, mirrors, signal, mirrors, shoulder glance, increase revs, release clutch slowly, move off, balance, feet up, cancel indicator, increase revs, clutch in, second gear, release clutch…” All of which of course experienced speakers and bikers no longer consciously think about!

Once you’ve mastered stopping and starting a presentation or motorbike the next challenges are:

  • Manoeuvring the presentation or bike slowly and precisely around topics or in my case cones.

  • Joining a conversation or flow of traffic; the more speakers or traffic and the faster it’s flowing the more difficult it is to join

  • Being aware of traffic & pedestrians, or in your vicinity.

  • Obeying traffic or meeting rules such as the Highway Code or the agenda

  • Changing direction; Bends, especially sharp turns in the conversation or road can be difficult to judge and need care attention

  • Emergency situations how to react when the flow comes to an unexpended stop for example.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, learning to drive takes time, practice and patience. If you don’t use the skill very regularly it’s difficult to become proficient at it and, if you take a long break you need to start learning again. If this was your son or daughter learning to drive that’s what you’d tell them, right?

You'd show compassion and not judge them too harshly. You’d tell them it just takes practice and in time it will become second nature.

So, if this isn’t what you’re saying to yourself, have a little compassion. Prepare yourself before going into a meeting or presentation, help yourself by learning phrases to start, stop and change direction during the presentation. Have some emergency measure to hand and remember to relax and enjoy the straight and easy sections. In time as with riding a motorbike, you’ll learn to love the exhilaration of tight corners and windy roads and will be able to navigate them with ease and grace.

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