by Christine Clapp

Soon after the pandemic began, I took up standup paddleboarding. It is a great sport for being in nature, distancing physically, and getting a full-body workout in the summer when the heat can make it less comfortable to run, hike, bike, or do other outdoor activities. If you’re new to standup paddleboarding, you can apply some lessons from public speaking to make your next foray on the water both safe and fun.

Public speaking and paddleboarding
Spoken with Authority Founder and President, Christine Clapp, paddleboarding on the St. Croix River

Be aware of context

Just like presenters must research and adjust to the audience and speaking occasion to deliver an excellent speech, paddleboarders need to be aware of context too. What is the expected temperature of the air and water? How windy is it? What about the surf, currents, and / or tides? Are there jellyfish or other hazards in the water? There are some conditions under which you should not deliver a presentation, such as if you don’t have time to adequately prepare or if you don’t have the expertise or passion to do justice to a topic you’ve been asked to address. Similarly, there are times when the conditions call for staying off your paddleboard to ensure your safety.

Come prepared

Seasoned public speakers know all too well that if something can go wrong during a presentation, it will – from having technology fail to getting a stain on the front of your shirt, and from having the presenter before you eat up half your speaking time to getting an upset stomach before a speech. That’s why effective speakers come prepared with backup materials so they can continue without slides, a cell phone where they can dial into a virtual meeting when their Internet goes out, a stain stick or change of clothing, a flexible and well-rehearsed outline that easily can be condensed, and a kit with medicine and personal supplies.

Murphy’s Law applies to standup paddleboarding too. Paddleboarders should prepare by alerting a friend or family member as to when and where they will be on the water; using a quality roof rack and straps to transport their board on a vehicle; having a life jacket, whistle, and an extra screw to attach the fin to the board; using a leash to attach their board to their ankle; wearing a sunhat; bringing a container of water and a dry bag for a cell phone, sunscreen, food, and a dry change of clothes; and bringing plenty of water and a carabiner or rope to attach a water bottle to the board.

Don’t go it alone

If you want to streamline the time needed to prepare for a presentation and improve communication outcomes, you shouldn’t struggle alone needlessly. Hire a coach or join a Toastmasters Club to get advice and support. Similarly, find a friend who is an experienced paddleboarder to go out on the water with you or look for paddle classes, clubs, or guided excursions on a body of water near you. While paddling solo can be an amazing experience, it is always safer to be on the water with a partner or in a group, especially on a body of water that you’ve never paddled.

Three friends paddleboarding on the St. Croix River
Spoken with Authority Founder and President, Christine Clapp, paddleboarding with friends on the St. Croix River

Expect the beginning to be the most difficult

The beginning of a speaking role is always the hardest, from standing up and walking to the lectern at a conference or taking control of a virtual meeting and unmuting yourself to saying your opening few sentences. Those first minutes are always when nervousness spikes and you feel most volatile. Soon, you will fall into a slower heart and breathing rate, an easier rhythm with your material, and you’ll hit your stride in the presentation. 

This is true for paddleboarding too. The process of getting a large board off a vehicle and onto a body of water, and then sitting and standing up on the paddleboard is admittedly difficult. But once you are standing and paddling on open water, you will soon feel more comfortable and will start gliding on the water smoothly.

It gets easier with practice

Every time you say a presentation out loud, you get better at it. Each time you gain experience with a specific speaking situation, you feel slightly less awkward with it. Similarly, the steps you take to get standing and paddling on open water will get easier and more fluid each time you do them. Whether you want to get better as a presenter or paddler, you should practice regularly. It won’t make you perfect, but practice absolutely will improve your confidence and abilities.

Be present

When you practice and get comfortable delivering a speech or paddling a board, it allows you to be in the moment. Being present allows you to connect with and respond to your audience as a speaker. Being present allows you to connect with nature and respond to your environment as a paddleboarder. Presence should be a goal in both endeavors.

Wear good shoes

It is no fun to have sore or blistered feet when you are delivering a presentation or paddling on a beautiful body of water. Wear shoes that are appropriate to the situation, but also supportive and comfortable. You will be happier, more effective, and will have more fun whether you are on a stage or on a lake.

Get back up when you fall off

Mishaps are inevitable. For public speakers, that will mean a technology failure or a speech that doesn’t land well with an audience. For paddleboarders, that will mean falling off the board or heading home early because the weather turns. Remember, one hiccup in a presentation or in a day on the water doesn’t mean the entire event is a failure. Get right back to presenting or right back on the board for paddling. If you don’t make the issue into a big deal, it won’t be one. Furthermore, one bad speech doesn’t mean you are a bad public speaker; one bad day on the water doesn’t mean that paddleboarding isn’t for you. It means you had an off performance, need to figure out what went wrong, make corrections, and get back out to try it again. Don’t let a bad experience fester. Try to have a positive experience as a speaker or paddler soon after a negative one so you can reestablish positive associations with the activity. 

Take a moment to reflect

Whether the presentation or paddle goes amazingly or terribly, it is crucial to take a moment to reflect on the experience to process, learn, and grow. Make notes about what worked and what didn’t so you can repeat successes and avoid problems in future. Reflection is also a great way to practice gratitude. After all, being able to give a speech or to paddle a board is a gift. It is easy to forget how lucky we truly are. 

A note from the author on standup paddleboards: In the last three summers, my family has amassed a small collection of paddleboards where we live in Washington, DC, and paddle on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, as well as in Scandia, MN, where we have a summer cabin and paddle on the St. Croix River. I prefer epoxy / hard boards (as opposed to inflatables) and own these three standup paddle boards (among others). I receive no economic benefit from sharing these links and hope you enjoy these boards too.

A stable and light board for beginners

A longer board for more experienced paddlers that can handle choppier conditions

A super light and easy-to-steer board that can accommodate heavier loads (people or paddlers with pets or gear)