For any skill, the only way to improve is through practice. Reading about that skill is not practice. Watching other people do something is not practice. Reading and watching can only help you develop a skill if you apply what you learn while you are practicing. Most people do not practice, which is why most people are bad at most things, including public speaking.
The most important thing to 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 simple outline best expresses your answers, and gives a sense of progression?
Many speakers don’t spend enough time crafting the central message of their talk. Instead, most get lost in superficials: trying to look good and sound. 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.
Speaking is actually comprised of several skills: writing, storytelling and performing. A good presentation combines them all 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. Take a few minutes of your material, before you make any slides, and do a practice run. Record it on video. Then watch it. Ask friends you know who will give you tough feedback to watch it too. Take notes on places where you get lost, where your points can be clearer and any distracting habits you might have. Then do it again. Revise and rewrite. And practice again. Practice is the only way to improve habits, improve your thoughts and get comfortable with your own material.
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
- Archive of public speaking advice on this blog
- Download the free “how to prepare for a talk” checklist (PDF)
(Note: originally posted on Quora)