No good at public speaking? Six reasons why improving is just like learning to play a new sport (or any other complex skill)
I recently heard someone describe the three phases he goes through when learning a new skill. The first stage is fear. The second stage is grit – the hard work that goes into getting good at anything. Thirdly, there is mastery – the feeling of being highly skilled.
I found this relatable. I started my public speaking journey 17 years ago as an extremely nervous speaker. It took me eight years of consistent effort to feel proficient. Mastery is a strong word – especially when there is always room for improvement – but when things go well, I feel proud of what I have achieved.
I took up yoga around the same time as public speaking and have established a consistent practice that serves me well. I can identify the three phases too. The fear wasn't intense but I had nagging self doubt about whether my body was right for yoga (a baseless concern but very real!)
However, I can think of many things I have started but not achieved mastery or even proficiency.
Languages, for example! At various times in my life, I have studied Latin, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Māori – but have not become fluent in any of them. I don’t have a gift for languages – but nor do most people. I am not fluent because I never persevered long enough to achieve that level. In fact I have never really progressed beyond the fear stage - fear that I sound terrible!
Back to public speaking. Like any sport, craft, or even a language, public speaking is a skill-set that anyone can learn. No one would expect to be instantly good at a new activity requiring complex skills, but for some reason, we don’t view public speaking the same way. Many people are quick to judge themselves as just not suited to public speaking.
For the purpose of this article, I will continue with a sports analogy, but any activity involving complex skills could be substituted – playing an instrument, learning a language, or learning a craft such as cooking or wood carving.
Here are six reasons why getting better at public speaking is just like learning to play a new sport.
Being naturally good is only important if you want to be a world champion!
This might seem an unusual place to start, but so many people decide that they will never be any good because public speaking doesn’t come easily to them.
We can all learn to swim, play tennis, or play a team sport. While being naturally good at a sport will help, just about anyone prepared to put in the effort can reach a reasonable level.
Of course, if you are aspiring to go to the Olympics, you will need talent – a lot of it. But most people who play sport enjoy it recreationally.
I am sure there are people born with the ‘gift of the gab’. They seem to be able to get up in front of audiences and talk naturally with little effort. But the majority of us have had work on it. We probably won’t ever be world champions, but we have learned how to become competent speakers.
Competence requires consistent effort
You have no doubt heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell explains the 10,000-hour rule in this book – that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any complex skill.
The good news is that it won’t take you anything like 10,000 hours to become a competent speaker! I have done some back of the envelope calculations. I estimate that it took me around 800 hours to feel like I was a proficient speaker – approximately two hours a week for eight years. Proficiency may not be mastery - but it is good enough for me!
If you still think this sounds daunting, I have even better news. The fastest progress I made was in the first year. Since then, I have continued to improve but at a slower rate.
I promise you that you will see considerable improvement after a year of regular commitment. Although it is within your grasp, it will take effort, consistency and perseverance, and most people will give up before they see their hard work pay off.
You have to work on one thing at a time
I like to use a tennis analogy when explaining to people how to approach public speaking. Imagine if you were playing tennis for the first time and you tried to focus on your forehand grip, your backhand grip, serving, footwork, and watching the ball – all at the same time. You wouldn’t make any progress!
Instead, a coach will have you focus on one or two things - probably starting with your forehand and returning balls hit directly to you by the coach. Next, the coach might get you running for the ball or returning backhands.
The first time I went to Toastmasters, I was told that I said ‘um’ around 22 times in four minutes! And so, I started by concentrating on eliminating ums. I rarely use filler words now, but there was a process I had to go through. Next, I moved onto other aspects of my delivery – slowing down, making eye contact with people in the audience, learning to pause for effect, and being aware of my body language.
It was around the time that I learned to pause effectively that I started to feel like a powerful speaker! I could see that I had the audience’s full attention and that they were engaged. It wasn’t just the pausing - by this time, I had built up a good set of skills.
You need to practice before you perform
You wouldn’t expect to be ready for interclub tennis until you have had a fair bit of practice. So why would you expect to be able to get up in front of an important audience when you have not spent time practicing public speaking? When you think about it this way, it is a bit crazy!
Toastmaster clubs are a great place to practice. When it is your turn to do a prepared speech, you can speak on anything you want for 5-7 minutes, and you have a captive audience.
If you find the idea of Toastmasters too terrifying, look around for a short public speaking course to get you started. Fear-less public speaking offers courses for people who are highly anxious about public speaking.
No time for a club or course? Introduce a regular casual forum at your workplace. For example, try lunch-time learnings, where people share ideas and practice public speaking by talking on topics of interest to others.
You need feedback to improve
Effort will only get you so far in sport. You need to recognise problems in your technique and fix them. The way that most athletes improve is by getting feedback from a coach.
Public speaking is no different. It can be hard to figure out how to improve by yourself, but often an observer can give you valuable feedback. At a minimum, you should watch yourself on video. Like sport, you can take an analytical approach to public speaking – break it down and figure out what is working for you and what needs to change.
Again, Toastmasters can be a great place to get feedback. There is a saying that everything in Toastmasters is evaluated. You will get feedback on what you do well and one or two areas you might want to improve.
My speaking has definitely benefited from feedback. For example, I was once told that I came across as a bit ‘scary’. I was puzzled by this feedback until I realised that nervousness makes me serious – and my audience could misinterpret this. I now make a conscious effort to “lighten up” when I feel nervous.
Use it or lose it
“It is just like riding a bike” is an expression we use for things we never forget once learned. Sports involving balance and hand-eye coordination tend to fit into this category. For example, I can ski, and while the first run of each season might feel rough, I am quickly back to my last season’s level after a few runs.
Unfortunately public speaking is not like riding a bike! Instead it like going to the gym. Imagine you work out hard for six months at the gym and then stop! What happens? Within a month or two, you are back to your pre-gym level of fitness!
If you don’t consistently practice, you can lose confidence and regress as a speaker. Like lifting weights, you can maintain your speaking ‘fitness’ with a minimal level of practice – but it does need to be regular.
In summary, you can dramatically improve your public speaking ability by treating it like a new sport, or if sport is not your thing, like any activity involving complex skills.
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.