For any skill, the only way to improve is through practice. This is not the same as reading or watching, even if you feel you are learning. Reading and watching only help if you apply what you learn while you practice. Most people do not practice, which is why most people are bad at most things, including public speaking.
Speaking is actually several skills combined: writing, storytelling and performing. A good presentation combines them into one experience. To be a good speaker requires studying and practicing all three.
People worry the most about performing. The best possible way to improve performance is to (surprise!) practice. Here’s a simple way:
Take a few minutes of your material, even if just a rough outline, before you make any slides, and do a practice run.
- Record it on video (you don’t have to, but it helps).
- Take notes on places where you get lost, where your points can be clearer and any distracting habits you might have. Watch the video to help identify them.
- Think through some adjustments, write them down if you like.
And when each segment feels good, move on to the next few minutes. Then do it all together. Practice is the only way to improve habits, improve your thoughts and get comfortable with your own material.
One important part of practice is thinking. Think about these questions:
- Why is your audience there? What problem are they trying to solve?
- What 5 questions do they want you to answer on the topic?
- What work do you need to do to give great, practical answers?
- What can you remove to get to the answers faster?
- What’s a simple outline of topics that gives a sense of progression?
- Who will you do a practice version of your talk with to get their feedback?
Many speakers don’t spend enough time crafting the central message of their talk. Instead, most get lost in surfaces: trying to look and sound good. But the reason people show up to a conference or presentation is rarely for superficials – it’s to get answers and encouragement. The experience is not about the speaker, it’s about the audience.
At any event, the one lecture that solves the most problems for the most people will be the best remembered. If you give the audience ways to solve their problems, they’ll overlook many superficial mistakes. This requires hard work. Good public speaking is always based on good private thinking.
When you see a presentation that is smart, polished and looks natural, never forget how much effort was required to make it seem so effortless. There is no magic trick or secret despite what some books promise – there’s only thoughtful effort.
- Read my bestseller, Confessions of a Public Speaker, with honest chapters on practical advice for everything you need to be a better speaker (Free chapter on managing fear here)
- Archive of public speaking advice on this blog
- Download the free “how to prepare for a talk” checklist (PDF)
(Note: originally posted on Quora)