Article Category: Speaker Habits

Four Stages of Speaking Competence

Speech and Presentation ContrastWhy are speaking skills so elusive?

Why do so many people who speak incoherently fail to recognize how ineffective they are?

Can you be “born with” speaking skills?

In this article, we’re going to study a learning theory that applies to speaking skills and all other skills in your life. We’ll describe the four stages, identify the transition triggers, and discuss practical actions you can take to leverage this knowledge.

Read on!

Four Stages of Competence

According to learning theories formed in the 1960s and 1970s, all learners progress through a series of four stages as they learn any new skill.

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These sources offer alternative descriptions and historical context:

These four stages are:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    • The person does not possess the skill (i.e. they are incompetent).
    • The person is also unaware (i.e. unconscious) of their incompetence, and may even think they possess average or above-average skill.
    • The person lacks the knowledge to assess the skill, so they can’t differentiate between those who are strong or weak at the skill. Thus, they can’t see their own weakness.
    • Further, the person does not generally understand the importance or motivation for having the skill.
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    • A person in the second stage is still incompetent, but they are now conscious of that fact.
    • The person recognizes the value of having the skill and has enough knowledge to recognize what separates skilled from unskilled individuals.
  3. Conscious Competence
    • A person in the third stage has acquired enough knowledge and practical ability to be deemed competent.
    • The person can demonstrate use of the skill, but requires conscious effort to do so.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    • A person in this fourth stage is fully competent.
    • The person has practiced the skill so much that it comes intuitively and without difficulty.

Examples of Skills at Different Competence Stages

This learning theory applies to all skills. We’ll examine speaking skills in more detail later, but it may help to provide a few fitness-related examples from my own life experience first.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    • By definition, it’s impossible for me to share an example of something if I’m unconscious of it. (Life experience tells me there must dozens of things in this category, but I have blind spots just like everyone else.)
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    • I am thoroughly incompetent at tennis. (I’ve only been on a tennis court twice in my life.) However, as a long-time fan, I am conscious of the wide array of skills needed to play this sport. I can differentiate between recreational players, professionals, and elite champions, and I know that I don’t fit any of those groups.
  3. Conscious Competence
    • A decade ago, I ran the Vancouver Marathon after 15 months of extensive training and improved nutrition. I wasn’t speedy, but I was a competent runner. However, all of my training was very conscious. I was tracking and recording my progress daily, and consulted books, websites, and friends every step of the way to gradually improve my technique and endurance.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    • I am unconsciously competent at riding a bicycle. Give me a helmet and a bike, and I can get from here to there without thinking about it.

How about you? Can you think of skills where you fall into stages 2, 3, or 4? (For stage 1, you would need to think of something in your past.)

How does this apply to Speaking Skills?

The four stages of competence apply to speaking and presentation skills just like all other skills one might learn and practice in a lifetime.

All people start at the first stage (unconscious incompetence), which is characterized by the following:

  • The person is an ineffective speaker, but they are not aware that they are an ineffective speaker.
  • The person cannot distinguish between excellent speakers and poor speakers, and probably cannot list basic speaking skills.
  • The person probably doesn’t recognize the importance of speaking effectively and the difference it can make in their life and career.

Sound familiar? Hands up if you know people who fit this description… I do! Sadly, many people happily spend their entire lives at the first stage. However, they can break free through a series of transitions that I call recognition, acquisition, and intuition. Let’s examine each of these in detail.

Recognition (Stage 1 to Stage 2)

Transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2 is a process of recognition.

To transition from stage 1 to stage 2, the person must recognize both the importance of speaking skills and their own incompetence with respect to these skills. How?

  • The recognition trigger often comes in the form of honest feedback from someone else. e.g. “If you want to reach your career potential, you need to improve your speaking skills.
  • Some people resist making this transition because it is easier to ignore feedback (i.e. “ignorance is bliss!”). For example, a colleague of mine once said “I’m not Winston Churchill, but I do just fine when I need to speak.” (In reality, he is not “just fine”; he is a chaotic and unorganized speaker.)
  • Because speaking or presenting is not a simple skill (i.e. it’s a collection of inter-related skills), this transition takes some time.

A person in stage 2 is aware of their relative weakness as a speaker. Although they don’t have the ability to present their ideas effectively, they can recognize the differences between poor presenters and excellent presenters. Because they are keenly aware of their weakness, they will generally avoid speaking opportunities. In time, they may set a goal to aim for stage 3.

Acquisition (Stage 2 to Stage 3)

Transition from stage 2 to stage 3 marks the acquisition of new abilities.

To transition from stage 2 to stage 3, a person must make a commitment to learn, practice, and eventually acquire speaking skills.

  • There are various acquisition triggers which mark the beginning of this transition, including:
    • Requesting feedback from peers and colleagues
    • Reading speaking and presentation websites (like Six Minutes) and books (like these)
    • Joining a speaking club (e.g. Toastmasters)
    • Attending speaking seminars, courses, and other forms of training
    • Hiring a speaking coach
  • During this transition, speakers naturally gain confidence. As a result, they begin seeking out opportunities to speak.
  • This transition can take a long time, particularly as you experiment with new ideas, learn new things, forget other things, and start over again and again.

A person in stage 3 is a competent speaker who can successful deliver an effective presentation. However, every time they prepare and deliver a speech, they are conscious of the steps they work through and require occasional reminders and feedback (from self or others). Many people plateau in stage 3, but a small fraction will progress to stage 4.

Intuition (Stage 3 to Stage 4)

Transition from Stage 3 to Stage 4 occurs when intuition takes over.

The transition from stage 3 to stage 4 may take many years of speaking experience. The intuition trigger is not a single event, but rather extensive practice and dedication across hundreds of speeches or presentations. There are no short cuts.

A person in stage 4 is an intuitive competent speaker. All speaking activities–preparation, speechwriting, creating slides, practice, and delivery–are carried out efficiently and without the level of conscious effort necessary in stage 3. Speakers at this final stage have comprehensive knowledge of what to do and why to do it. Because of this, stage 4 speakers are often adept at teaching speaking skills to others. Stage 4 speakers also have the best chance to build a career around speaking.

That’s it? One stage to describe my speaking skills?

Not exactly.

The theory applies well to a single, primitive skill, but speaking effectively demands a whole range of skills. So, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to be at stage 4 for some skills (e.g. telling stories or speaking off-the-cuff), but at stage 2 or 3 for other skills (e.g. using visuals or speaking persuasively).

Can I skip stages?

No. It would be nice to be “born with it” and skip straight to stage 3 or 4, but that’s a myth. You can only get there with lots of hard work. Until then, you’ve got to spend some time in the blissful stage 1 or the frustrating stage 2.

Is it possible to slide backwards?

Yes. A master presenter who stops using their speaking skills can slide from stage 4 back to stage 3 (i.e. one must consciously think about things which were previously intuitive). Or, someone who was comfortably competent in stage 3 can easily slide back into stage 2 incompetence over time.

I have experienced this negative effect, both in speaking and other life skills. You know that marathon I completed? Well, after years away from the treadmill, I have had to re-acquire competence as a runner. I certainly wish I had never let it slide.

Put it into Practice

It’s a powerful theory, but what practical actions can you take to leverage this knowledge for yourself and those around you?

  • Do a self-assessment. Make a list of speaking skills, and assess your competence. Are you in stage 2? 3? 4? Or a combination?
  • Seek honest feedback from people you trust. This is the best way to identify blind spots and skills where you may be unconsciously incompetent.
  • Give honest feedback to others. Don’t be a stage 1 enabler for them.
  • Commit to lifelong learning. Keep building your skill set. Encourage others to join you.
  • Practice. It’s the best way to reach unconscious competence, and also the best way to avoid sliding back.

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Comments icon4 Comments

  1. Wow, this is an awesome read. There’s so much potential in every skill to improve and become better, and also the possibility of sliding backwards, when we lack practice.

  2. This is a very useful post. Thanks!
    I experienced a jump from 1 to 2 very recently. I have, over the past few months, been learning about the Alexander Technique to improve my teaching of voice for presentation. I thought I was pretty competent at it. However, as with most speaking skills, theoretical knowledge is quite different from practical skills. Some recent feedback made me realise that my conscious competence with the basic theory was causing me to be unconsciously incompetent at putting it into practise. So I suddenly switched into realising my overall conscious incompetence. Solution?
    In my case, get some practical mentoring.
    I think that often a person with a high level of conscious competence can make a better teacher than someone with long-ingrained unconscious competence. I occasionally see this in some speakers who talk about practical skills, who seem to have forgotten what it actually felt like to not be able to do the skills they’re teaching. Thankfully it’s quite rare to see in presentation skills training but it does happen.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks for sharing your personal story and perspective, Alex.

  3. Iqbal says:

    This article same with Imam Ghazali article a thousands years a go : The Human and The Stages of Knowledge and how we face it.

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