One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear for public speaking is: just practice, practice, practice. You’ll get better!
This advice is spread so much because it kind of works. Yes, by simply going out and speaking in public, you can get better at public speaking.
But there are several problems with that.
- You can actually develop bad habits—practice makes permanent.
- It can take a long time.
- You eventually plateau if that’s all you do.
In this post, I want to talk about the proper way to practice: it actually resembles a boxing movie. It all starts with the growth mindset.
How the growth mindset affects public speaking
In the 1980’s, a Stanford psychological researcher and professor named Carol Dweck started to research the idea of fixed vs. growth mindsets. A person has a “growth mindset” when they believe success is more a factor of hard work than natural talent. A person has a “fixed mindset” if they believe natural talent explains most success, and there’s little room for improving oneself.
Much research has been done to demonstrate the effects of these mindsets on a person’s ability to learn and adapt. People who have fixed mindsets tend to fear failure, avoid challenges, and ignore or even get offended at feedback. People with growth mindsets are able to improve and eager to learn.
Most importantly, research has found that you can improve at things, even if you’re not talented.
But how you improve is key—and that’s where deliberate practice comes in.
How learning to speak is like every boxing movie ever
You start with a few establishing scenes of the protagonist winning fights easily. Clearly, they’re an accomplished fighter. Maybe you’ve been speaking for a while yourself—you know your way around it. But you’re starting to plateau.
The next portion of the movie is establishing that there’s a bigger, badder threat out there. Cue scenes of some unknown boxer that beats his opponents so badly, they end up in the hospital. That’s equivalent to the speaker who’s just better than you, or a speaking gig that you can’t seem to qualify for. You’ve been speaking for so long, and yet your best is not good enough. What then?
This is where the goosebumps show up. What follows is a training montage: filled with inspirational quotes from close friends, tears of anguish, and pure determination. Hype music plays, and the protagonist grunts through a brutal workout.
Here’s the catch: notice what kind of workouts the protagonist is doing. Your friendly neighborhood boxer doesn’t prepare for a fight by just boxing people. No, he does drills. He uses an agility ladder to work on his footwork. He has someone punch him repeatedly so he can learn to focus even when he’s in pain. Maybe he even boxes underwater to practice speed with resistance.
Second, he’s not doing it alone. Have you noticed that every Olympian or world-class athlete has a coach? Why is that? Is the coach better than them at boxing/skiing/running, etc.?
No, these athletes have coaches for two primary reasons:
- Coaches specialize in knowing the techniques and drills that will make an athlete great at their sport (while athletes specialize in being good at the sport).
- It’s harder to catch your own mistakes than for someone else to catch your mistakes. You know this is true if you’ve ever had someone proofread your speeches.
Research has found that the kind of practice described above, deliberate practice, helps people break past plateaus and improve faster.
You may be thinking, “But I’m not an athlete. How do I do deliberate practice with public speaking?”
How to use deliberate practice with public speaking
Believe it or not, you can break public speaking down into a series of skills or tasks that can be individually practiced. That is: you don’t have to give a speech to an audience to practice public speaking.
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things you can practice:
- Pitch changes
- Adding drama to a sentence
- Delivering jokes (huge)
Now, back to boxing
Do you see the parallel now? In order to get good at practically any skill, you need to apply the champion boxer mentality.
Champions don’t practice mindlessly. They don’t train without a coach’s direction. They certainly do not go for days or weeks without practicing.
What’s the villain in your public speaking movie? Is it someone who doubts your ability? A better speaker? An uncontrollable shake when you speak? Whatever it is, the only way you’re going to defeat it is by starring in your own training montage.
Get inspired, and get ready for some deliberate practice.