Three Tips to Improve Your Public Speaking

Being good at a task is often attributed to talent, genetics, or plain luck. Although this is the common way of thinking, it ignores some fundamental facts about how our brains work, and the way we learn. Humans learn through trial and error combined with repetition. Take a young child for example, if you watch them while they learn to walk, you already have seen how many attempts (probably in the thousands) it takes for them to complete their first few wobbly steps. However, once they have figured out how to walk, they are making laps around the house non stop, refining their newly learned skill. I remember being over at a friend’s house and seeing their son finally walking (he had learned days before) all he wanted to do was walk around the house again and again and again. To the child this must feel like a magical moment, previously he had seen all the other humans in his life gliding around bipedally, while he himself was confined to the ground crawling. Then one day it just happened, the neurons in the brain finally fired in the right pattern and those important first few steps were taken. With time, these new brain connections are strengthened as the action of walking is repeated over and over again. The point is, that what may have seemed previously impossible (due to the enormous number of failed attempts) was really just the brain needing time to rewire itself for the new task of balancing while on two feet.

Baby walking

We would never say that one is “gifted” or “talented” just because they learned to walk, rather it is expected since most all humans are capable of it. If we compare this to the way adults tend to approach learning new tasks, the difference is that adults will often throw up their hands in frustration and give up after only a few hundred failed repetitions. So what does learning to walk have to do with public speaking? When it comes to public speaking, most people will admit they are afraid of in the first place, and just not very good at it in the second. Although few people will attempt to improve themselves and get experience to fix their mistakes. When you are not very good at a task, it is very frustrating to improve because it takes so many failed repetitions to learn something new. However, if you are able to stick with it, slow and steady improvements are possible until the task at hand becomes second nature. Now there will be differences on how quickly some can learn and improve in a task over others, but in the case of public speaking we should avoid comparisons to others. Every professional sportsman and sportswoman had to learn to walk and coordination their body just like you did when you were a toddler. The difference is that they were persistent and kept working on their coordination for many, many years.

Holding on to the idea that we are static and cannot improve our skills is the incorrect way to think. For example “I am bad at public speaking because I get nervous”, It is a common problem people have but whether you realize it or not being nervous is something that you can overcome if you use the right technique and practice. Think about this, are you nervous when you tell a story to 3 people over dinner? what about 5 people at a party? 10 people in the office? 20? where is the threshold that makes you get nervous? is it the topic you are talking about? being on stage? using a microphone? etc… Could you get to a point (through practice) where you are less and less nervous until you are not really nervous at all anymore and it all becomes second nature? The answer is yes!

1. Identify Specific Problems and Focus Your Practice

After studying experts in fields from sports to science to music to writing, scientists have determined that 10000 hours is the amount of practice needed to take anyone to the top of his or her field. 1

So you have come to accept that you need practice at public speaking, but you may be wondering, what should I do first to improve? The real key here is to identify the problems as specific as possible. Vague statements like “I’m really just not very confident, I need to act more confident when I speak” do not help here. When do you feel a lack of confidence? Under what circumstances? Is it a particular subject matter? A time of day? A certain group you are speaking to? etc. You need to be as specific as possible so you can address the problem with focused practice to will get to the root of what is causing you trouble. Consider this, musicians will often repeat a section of difficult music again and again at a very slow tempo until it is flawless. Only then do they actually play it at the normal speed. This is the approach we need to take when improving at speaking in public. If you are bad at visuals, get specific, what aspect exactly. Then it is time to make a lot of simple visual aids to practice your skills. You need to be able to make and explain a simple visual aid until it is flawlessly. Ask a friend to listen to you explain what you have made and see if it makes sense. You need to be ruthless in your pursuit to find errors and faults in your technique and continually practice. Only then can you fix the problems and take your skill set to the next level.

2. Emulate Others

Individual differences in talent and intelligence are not predetermined by genes; they develop over time. Genetic differences do play an important role, but genes do not determine complex traits on their own. … Speaking broadly, limitations in achievement are not due to inadequate genetic assets, but to our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have. 2

When it comes to actualizing our potential as someone who is speaking and communicating in public, emulation of a style you like is a good place to start. Look at the people who have the skills you desire, who have the confidence you want, who seem to be so smooth when they present, and emulate them. Watching and learning from others is an innately human quality, and using it to improve your skills is a great way to springboard yourself to the next level. The thing you must watch out for however is that you are not outright copying someone else. There is a fine line between emulation and copying. Your content and voice should be your own, but the tone of voice, mannerisms, and techniques can all be borrowed from someone you admire. Emulation is a great way to get yourself over the first few hurtles when it comes to finding your own style. However, be sure to move away from emulating others once you have the experience and confidence to develop your own style. When you are unsure about overstepping the bounds of emulation, use citations and make it clear of who you are emulating.

3. Fake it until you make it

Amy Cuddy gave an excellent TED talk about how we can use body language to help improve our own confidence. In this talk she also describes the method of faking it, until you become the person who you are aspiring to be. No one starts off speaking in public sounding like they are giving the best TED talk ever. However we can try to act like we are giving the best TED talk ever. Research shows that when you keep those goals in mind and try your best to portray yourself as such eventually you will actualize your goals. The key is to not get discouraged when you fail, failure is a normal part of learning and should be treated as such.  Keep on working at your goals and they will come true as long as you don’t give up.

These are just a few ideas to help improve your speaking skills and reach your goals as a communicator. Naturally everyone will have a different experience of what works for them, however, remember that if you want to be great at something then you will need to put in a lot of practice and be very persistent in reaching those goals.

References

1. Maats, H. &  O’Brien, K. (2013) The Straight-A Conspiracy: Your Secret Guide to Ending the Stress of School and Totally Ruling the World, 368 press LLC

2. Shenk, D. (2010) The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ, Anchor Books a division of random house inc.

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