Presentations - Uncategorized

Deliberate Practice for Presentations

Only 9,999 more hours to go…

I’m going to start this post with a commonly accepted premise: to achieve mastery of a specific skill requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That’s the idea first propounded by expertise expert Anders Ericsson and popularized by Gladwell, Colvin and others.

There are actually a lot of things wrong with taking that statement too literally, but the general idea is not controversial: you have to put in a lot of time, and do a lot of the right things, if you want to reach the top levels of performance.

The problem is that if you want to be a great speaker or presenter, you will probably never have an opportunity in your entire lifetime to accumulate that much time practicing the craft, unless presenting and speaking to groups is practically all you do for a living. Just looking at the math, if you want to put in 10,000 hours in the first twenty years of your career, you’d have to present at least two hours every working day—and doing the same presentation over and over doesn’t count.

Fortunately, the second part of the premise—deliberate practice—is much more important, and it IS something you can control: quality is much more important than time.

Deliberate practice essentially requires:

  1. a clear idea of your current performance relative to an ideal standard
  2. identifying specific areas of improvement
  3. practicing just beyond your current skill level, (and probably failing at first)
  4. adjusting until you get it right
  5. repeating the process, over and over and over
  6. (I’ll leave this one for the end)

Of course, when it comes to presentations, there’s an obvious flaw. Deliberate practice is hard to do in the business world. Unlike a violinist who can put in countless hours of solitary practice before a performance, most of your “practice” time is in front of live audiences, where trying something new and failing may carry real consequences. Your sales manager isn’t going to say: “Well, we lost the sale, but I’m proud of you for trying that new opening during your presentation…let’s keep trying ‘til you get it right!”

Yet, you’ll never improve unless you venture out beyond your current skill level, so you have to be willing to take at least a little risk. If you focus on just one or two specific improvement areas every time you present, you will get better over time. Don’t get too ambitious; if you try to work on more than one or two things at a time you may run out of bandwidth to focus on the audience and your material.

We all have so many areas of possible improvement in our presentations, so it shouldn’t be too hard to think about what to deliberately practice in your next presentation. In fact, if you can’t think of anything that needs improvement, you might just have a bigger problem than you realize. Here’s a partial list of specific areas you can choose from:

  • Filler words
  • Eye contact
  • Stance and movement
  • Slide transitions
  • Writing/whiteboarding
  • Audience engagement
  • Word choice
  • Different presentation structures
  • Reading
  • Responding to questions

From my own experience, there is an added side benefit from deliberate practice: you become much more mindful of everything you do as a presenter, and that gives you a tremendous sense of focus and control, which I firmly believe adds to your presence and credibility in front of the audience.

If you practice steps 1-5 deliberately and consistently, you will over time become one of the top presenters anyone in your audience has ever seen. But if you want to accelerate the process, the missing step 6 in deliberate practice is having a competent coach who can provide honest and competent feedback and help plan your progression.

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