There’s a real problem with the articles and tweets that advertise “Ten Tips to Being a Great Public Speaker” and similar titles. The promise is that, if you just read and understand these quick suggestions, your progress to being a “great speaker” will be well on its way.
Believe me, I understand the appeal. A couple of years ago, my husband got me a guitar and guitar lessons for Christmas. I plunged in, very excited, imagining that by the next holiday season I’d be leading the family in carols, strumming chords on my guitar. The reality turned out to be very different. I would go to a lesson, practice some, and still not be able to play a C chord. I made lots of excuses: my hands are small, the strings hurt my fingers, I don’t think my hand bends that way, etc. In short, if I had come across an article titled “Ten Tips to Becoming a Great Guitar Player,” I would have downloaded that thing faster than I could, well, play a C chord.
I never found an article like that. You know why? Because the only way to become a good musician is by putting in the hours practicing the instrument.
Somehow, though, people in the public speaking and presentation coaching field get away with promising something we can’t deliver: that people who follow our bits of advice will succeed without specifically mentioning practice and how to implement it. These often include tips like: “Make eye contact.” “Tell a joke to break the ice.” “Use this specific gesture to emphasize a point.” “Persuade your audience to your point of view.” And my favorite, “be confident.”
It’s like if there were a blog post titled “How to Be a Great Basketball Player,” and the tips were: “Make lay-ups.” “Dribble.” “Pass to the other players on your team.” These are indeed some of the ingredients that would go into making a good player, but they miss the point. No one is going to just read that list and walk onto a court ready to play at any level.
Most people avoid practicing at all costs, and those who do, often practice inefficiently and end up reinforcing bad habits. If you want to be a better public speaker, you need to identify what’s working and what isn’t, ideally through feedback from a trusted source, and then you need to intentionally practice those elements of your personal speaking style.
You don’t have to have a coach to practice effectively, but a coach can see things you can’t (like the lipstick all over your face), and she can help you be accountable for practicing. Just like in basketball, or music, or cooking, or any other skill worth doing well. Don’t rely on “tips and tricks.” If you want to be a better speaker, dig in. It’s worth it.