“Practice makes perfect”, goes the old saying, quite unhelpfully.
The truth is, not all types of practice are made equal. So blindly practicing will not make you perfect, and you’re likely to hit a plateau if you practice the way most people do.
I want you to understand the critical difference between regular practice, and deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is when you take a specific problem and use a drill, or specific speaking exercise, to work on that issue selectively. In other words, imagine your issue was that you don’t enunciate well enough. Instead of just giving speeches to practice, you should give a speech at half speed and focus on enunciation. Slowly increase the speed while keeping the enunciation as perfect as possible. This is deliberate practice, and it’s miles ahead of regular practice.
Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good. ~Malcolm Gladwell
How deliberate practice changed my life
When I was 14, my mom forced me to join a local debate club. I was a skinny nerd with little to no social skills and zero self-awareness. My public speaking abilities were about exactly what you’d expect for someone like me. For the next three years, I accrued hours and hours of practice at various debate tournaments. I got a lot more confident and capable, but I rarely got any speaker awards. I was still decidedly mediocre.
In my fourth year, it finally clicked. In order to improve as a speaker, I couldn’t just practice the way I always had. Not only did I have to do it more frequently, I had to do deliberate practice instead of just any kind of practice.
That last year of debate, I went from a nobody to my region’s dominant public speaker. I placed top 5 at every tournament, including two consecutive first place finishes. I went on to place 4th at nationals.
It was a literal transformation, and it was all done through the power of deliberate practice.
How to do deliberate practice
Step 1. Analyze your speeches, and write down a list of issues.
The easiest way to do this is to video yourself speaking. It’s incredible how many things you will catch about yourself once you have the humility to do this. If you have a friend who is an experienced public speaker, that’s an ideal way to get feedback as well.
However, most people do not have the expertise in public speaking to self-diagnose their main issues, even if they watch themselves on video. That’s why I offer public speaking coaching on this website. You can send me a video clip of you speaking, and I’ll send back written feedback or do a Skype call. I’ll also help you out with tips on how to improve, and let you know what you’re doing right.
Tip for writing out your issues: make them as small as possible. Instead of writing down “bad hand gestures”, write down specific hand gestures that are bad.
Step 2. Prioritize and categorize your speaking issues
Once you’re done listing out what you need to improve on, it’s time to figure out what you need to work on the most.
Put the problems into categories (such as vocal, content, and body language).
Then, prioritize the problems according to which ones are the most severe and noticeable.
Step 3. Go down the list and practice fixing each problem
Try to get creative with your practice methods. While there aren’t that many different ways to practice speaking, there are occasionally specific drills that will help you more than others.
For example, tongue twisters are a common drill that can be used to help with enunciation issues.
Example of using deliberate practice
You watch a video of yourself delivering a speech, and you find that you don’t look confident when you speak, and your delivery is not engaging. You then create a plan for how to improve.
- Improve posture (confidence)
- Improve breathing (confidence/delivery)
- Increase voice modulation (delivery)
- Prescript your main points (delivery/confidence)
- Use emphasis phrases such as “Here’s the bottom line” or “here’s the main point” (delivery)
A real feedback list should look much larger, this is just a sample.
Next, we categorize the issues in terms of priority.
- Prescript your main points
- Improve posture
- Increase voice modulation
- Improve breathing
- Use emphasis phrases
Then we go down the list and start with the most important issue. Try writing a quick speech outline and practicing with that structure.
When you feel pretty good on that front, you can move on and give a regular speech while focusing on your posture. Keep doing so until the video shows that you had proper posture throughout the speech.
If you notice that, say, your posture reverts to normal once you get farther down the practice list, go back and practice posture again.
Why deliberate practice works for public speaking
When you engage in regular, mindless practice, your brain starts to form automatic habits. Think about the first time you drove a car: everything required thought and it might have been overwhelming. Having to think about steering, looking in the mirrors, acceleration, and traffic laws all at once when it’s your first time doing it can lead to disaster.
Your teacher probably broke it into small steps like this:
- Learn about traffic rules
- Learn about how to drive
- Actually get in the car in a safe place, practice changing gears
- Practice accelerating and braking
- Practice steering, slowing down and speeding up appropriately
- Practice looking in the mirror and using a blinker while turning
As you repeat each step, your brain starts to automate the process. Eventually, you’re able to drive without thinking about it.
When you’re giving a speech, there are so many factors that play into your speech. You have to remember what to say, use the proper vocal tone, pause when appropriate, move to illustrate new points, use natural hand gestures, plus hundreds of other minute details. There’s no way you can get better at all of those while giving a speech in front of an audience.
Eventually, you will start automating the entire process of speaking and using the same habits over and over. This is good at first, but you’re going to learn some bad habits (or at least some that are less than perfect).
Deliberate practice allows you to actually change each habit individually by building new ones in place of them. Drilling these new habits continually will eventually result in automatic adoption when you give a proper speech.
I can help you with your deliberate practice
Deliberate practice is difficult to pull off on your own. It takes a seasoned public speaker to figure out what your main speaking problems are, and which ones are the most important. Plus, it’s not always intuitive to know how to fix these problems.
This website supplies you with a list of things to look for in your own public speaking. If I write a post on proper enunciation, for example, you could look out for it in your own speaking.
In addition, you can always benefit from getting external feedback. Consider getting coaching from me. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been very happy with the improvements in their speaking.
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