How Do You Become a Good Speaker?

A young Japanese man asked me “How do you become a good speaker?” The normal answer would be “Practice, Practice, Practice.” But, that seemed a little trite and not terribly useful. So, the first thing that came to me was “What do you mean by a good speaker? Do, you mean someone like Barak Obama who inspired large crowds for some political cause? Do you mean someone like Craig Valentine who makes a very good living off his speaking engagements? Or do you mean someone like Simon Sinek? These are all very different people with very different styles succeeding as speakers in very different ways.”

His answer was “I am not sure. Do you have any suggestions as to who I should model myself after?” I could see this could turn into a long conversation, and other people may have other questions so, it seems best to give a simple answer.

“It would help to know a little more about what you want to accomplish as a speaker and who you like and don`t like but since we don`t have much time to get into that, why don`t we talk later? Does that sound ok?” The man nodded. I continued, “But, there is one thing that can be said.  If you want to become a better speaker you need to know three things:”

  1. Determine how will you objectively know that you are good speaker.
  2. Break down the skills that you need to become that good speaker.
  3. Use the PDCA cycle to continuously improve so that you will reach your goal.

This is simple in the saying, but hard in the doing.  Let`s look at this piece by piece.

How do you know objectively THAT you are a good speaker?

That is a hard question to answer because as I said before it depends on how you measure “good.”

You could measure:

  • the number of repeater to speaking events you are at
  • speech contest results.
  • amount of income you make from speaking
  • the number of speaking engagements that you receive
  • the number of comments from fans
  • the amount of applause at the end of your speech, etc.

The metric you use is simply up to you. You could ask around to see what others use as measure of success. Again, it depends on your specific situation and goals.

For example, imagine you are a professional motivational speaker.  You go from town to town, from business to business, trying to inspire people to live better lives. If you did a good job, the likely outcomes are a) you will be asked again to speak, b) they will refer you to their friends if you ask politely, c) others will come up to you and ask you if could speak at a different event. If you look at the number of presentations verse those three metrics you know if you are making progress or not.

But, let`s suppose you work for an NPO. In that capacity it would be nice to be invited back, and travel all around the country.  However, realistically that probably doesn`t pay the bills for your NPO. Your main objective is if your presentation sparked interest in donating or not. If you got new donors that is great! If your existing donors decide to increase the size of their original contribution or the frequency that they contribute, even better.

If you work in the corporate world, what people care about is revenue and more revenue.  So, how many contracts did you get? How many sales were you about to get from the strength of your presentation? How many referrals did you get? etc.

Depending on your situation some numbers may be easy to measure. Others would be hard. But, the first step is to just decide how you will know. Then you can brainstorm what metrics you can use to measure your results.

However, some of you may think that not everything that needs to be measured can be measured.  I think that is a reasonable objection. I would say that you need to think about how that is connected to things that you do know about. Sometime what you think you want is too vague to even measure.

For example, someone said “I want to wow my audience like Tony Robbins does.”  Ok. What does “wow” mean? How do know you “wowed” them? About how many do you want to “wow”?

I can tell you from experience that even Tony Robbins doesn’t wow every single person in his audiences. There are some that are dissatisfied in some small way or another.  I can guess that Tony looks at the audience and has certain expectations as to how the audience will react. If they react to his expectations of “Wowing” them then he is doing a good job.  If they react differently, then he makes the needed corrections.  I can also guess that he actually spends some time talking to the participants and tries to get a feeling of how they are enjoying the experience or not.

So, let take a few minutes here and think about how you know that you are a good speaker. I would start with a simple process.

If you do not know that makes a good speaker, then do some research.  I would:

1. Look at online videos of speakers.  Please look a range of speakers from really good one to not so good ones. You can learn a lot from both. If you are listening to a good speaker, list the characteristics of the speaker that you like.  Try to be as specific as you can.  If you are looking at a speaker that you do not like, also list the characteristics that you do not like. Again, try to be as specific as possible.

The reason for this is if you are too vague it is hard to figure out how to emulate that person. Suppose you saw a speaker and enjoyed how that speaker interacted with the audience. You wrote down, “good audience interaction”.  How do you practice that? There is no action that is “audience interaction.” There are things like asking questions, getting an audience member to come up.  Getting people to raise their hands etc. Those are specific concrete actions.

2. After you have a list of all the characteristics and specific techniques that you want to master, determine the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

You can measure yourself or ask someone to do it for you.  It may be a good idea to just to create a model presentation just for this use. That way you have some way to benchmark your current ability. If you are going to ask someone, make sure it someone you know well and are comfortable with.  Also, some who will be completely honest with you.  Some friends will want to be nice and give you high marks even when deep down in dark depths of their souls they think you suck in a certain area. This is because they want to protect your feeling and value your friendship. 

However, some friends and spouses have gone beyond that and want what is best for you no matter what you may think of them in the short term.  They may not be professional speech coaches, but if they are close to being a representative of your target audience then it is probably good enough. After all you are not going to speak in front a large group of speech coaches.

3. After you have determined a measure for the gap in each of your skill areas it is a good idea to prioritize. At this point you should have a good idea as to what your strengths and weakness are. You do not need to strong in all areas. After all there is no speaker anywhere who is 100% in every single skill and characteristic of public speaking. Some are great entertainers, some are great explainers, some are great motivators, some are a little bit all three.  But everyone is different.

I would look at first what is your ultimate objective of being a powerful presenter. Then look at what skills are essential in making that a reality.  You can that next look at what is nice to have and what is not necessary and prioritize accordingly. If you are not sure by yourself, get a second or third opinion.  After you ask a couple of people. You can be sure that you will have some general set of priorities for each of area that you should improve.

Now, how specific would you prioritize. That is fairly simple. You should look at these three qualities.

  1. Impact
  2. Difficulty
  3. Time

The one that has the most impact can be learned the easiest in the shortest amount of time is a clear winner. After that, you are looking at tradeoffs. Which quality has how much weight is strictly up to you, but you can start with treating each of the three equally. You can always change as you get new feedback.

To give you an example suppose you have written down the following qualities.

  • Creating Logical Composition
  • Managing Nervousness
  • Telling Powerful Stories  

These all seem important, but they may not be for the kind of speaker you want to be. You might want to one of people who wants to entertain and motivate. If that is the case, then perhaps you write down something like this:

  • Creating Logical Composition Impact = 3, Difficulty =1, Time = 6 weeks
  • Managing Nervousness Impact = 1, Difficultly=2, Time = 1 week
  • Telling Powerful Stories Impact = 2, Difficulty = 1, Time = 9 weeks

*Scale 1= highest, 3=lowest

If you are not sure how to set the Impact, Difficulty and Time to achieve it is a good idea to ask several experts and take the average. Not all experts can accurately estimate these qualities, but an average of experts will get you very close to reality.

So, let`s look at the scores for three items noted above.

  • Creating Logical Composition = 18
  • Managing Nervousness = 2
  • Telling Powerful Stories = 18

This shows that you should fix nervousness as soon as you can as it has the biggest impact and can be fixed the quickest. If you run into situation where the scores are about the same. I suggest you tackle the one that can be done in the quickest amount of time. This will contribute sooner to your speaking career that waiting to be good at time that takes a long, long, long time.

Now, that you have your priorities, then you need to get yourself a plan. As they a say a person without a plan is just planning to lose. However, most I have met do not like planning. It is a lot of work.  So, I like to keep things simple.

You simply start with your ultimate objective. You then break that down into smaller projects, and then break that down into smaller actions. You keep down smaller and shorter until you know what you need to do for the day.  You do not need to plan every single day for entire year.  You are not a soothsayer, and neither am I.  A few days, a few months out into the future is fine.

Let me start with an example. Suppose your objective is become a world class speaker.  You will first need to define what that means to you like I said earlier.

For the sake of argument let`s assume that it means that you make US$ 200,000 a year. Obviously, may people make much more and much less than that, but it gives you a benchmark of some kind.

Let also assume that as a part of your master plan for word class speaker domination you want to win a speaking competition. So, you think that this year is the year to win X competition within X organization by X date.  That make this year`s goal very simple and very easy to measure. You either win or you don`t. That is it.

So, what are you going to do? What is when you need to get create a start making a list of actions of things you can try.

You could for example:

  • Look at past speeches of contest winners and determine which speeches won and which did not.
  • You could try to get a judge form and then try to create a speech that would be easy to grade
  • You could set up practice time to practice your speech
  • You could ask people to give you feedback
  • You could join Toastmasters and get support that way
  • You could put a version of your speech on YouTube and see what reactions you get.
  • You could hire a speech coach

And so on and so forth

If you run out of ideas of things to do, then just ask the people around you if they have any ideas of what would be good to add to the list.

Then I would suggest that you really take a good hard look at your list. Is this really concrete enough to take action on? In most instances that is not really true.

Take the first example. “Look at past speeches of contest winners and determine which speeches won and which did not.” That seems pretty straight forwards. So, what do you do, first?

Do you go on YouTube?  Do you go to the organization’s website and see if you can get videos from there? Do you ask someone you know who is well connected in that organization and who may know someone who has the videos?  There is a whole list of concrete actions that you can actually take.

That is the important thing is it needs to be something that is simple enough that would not take any more than 10 minutes or less to carry out. Not only that it needs to be concrete enough that you can physically describe what will happen. You also need to have a good idea of when you are done.

Even if you look at which speeches won and lost, what do you have as the end result?  When will you know when to stop?  Some people will have analysis paralysis. And this is one way to effectively procrastinate. You just look at a ton of videos of champions over and over and over again. You may have some notes, but you will have not gone to the next step. Do, you need to determine that.

I find that it can be hard to start from the beginning and work towards the end. Many people have advised me, that it is best to start backwards. That seems to work for me, so why don`t you try it.  But, use whatever works for you.

In this case, the next step could a list of things that you though separated the first and second places winners. A next step would be to share this with someone to get feedback.  You may implement some of those things in your speech and then see how people react.  What you actually do is up to you. However, this is one really important thing.

If you decide on a next action, I highly recommend that you schedule time on your calendar to do that work.  We all have very busy lives, and sometimes we forget to do things or some emergency comes up and we have to attend to that. I know because it has happened to me many different time. In any case if it is not on your calendar it most likely will not get done. So, put in what every calendar tool or app that you use. Do it now.

If you look back, you will have noticed that you have a list of qualities of the kind of speaker you want to be.  You will have written down some measurable metrics so you an objectively know that you have obtained those qualities. Hopefully, you have also broken down each of the different qualities into actions and habits that need to be done and acquired.  This way you know what micro-skills you need to master, and you know what specific actions to practice so that you can get better.  

This kind of analysis can be hard for if you are starting out, but it is valuable challenge. It is also a good opportunity for you get out find the people who are good at this and ask them what they think. Learning and making connections this way is a useful skill in work and in life.

Finally, you can take that list and worked out a plan for learning and practicing those skills so that in the end you become the speaker that you want to be.

It is not an easy road to become a world class speaker. In fact, it will a long and winding road, with many false starts, dips, and dead ends.  We all would like to think that path to greatness is straight up. But it is now. There many detours and plateaus along the way. But, as long as we have the grit, as long as we have the determination, and as long as we have a plan. We can inch by inch, mile by mile get closer to the goal of become that speaker that we have always wanted to be.

I personally have been at the business for more than 15 years. I know I still have a lot to learn. There are is no one that a whole lot better or a whole lot worse than you, just people who started earlier or started later than you. There are also people with different styles and find different ways of success that work for them.  You just need to find the one pattern that works for you. So, go out there and be the best you can be.