How can you rapidly improve your presentation skills? When I began teaching at Stanford University in 2002, I was one of the weakest teachers--bottom 13% according to my student reviews. Eleven years later, in 2013, students named me one of the top 10 professors across all of Stanford University. During that journey, there was one short period when my teaching and public speaking rapidly improved, through a process called deliberate practice.
We all know that to get better at a musical instrument or a sport, you have to practice. Practice does not simply mean “doing the activity over and over.” Instead, you learn fastest when you engage in a focused process called deliberate practice, in which you repeatedly attempt an especially challenging part of the task.
When the best musicians are working to improve, they don’t just play their favorite tunes for hours. Instead, they pick a short but challenging passage in a larger musical piece, and repeatedly play that passage until they get it right. Athletes use a similar process to hone their skills. This is hard work---you focus in every attempt, try to figure out what you’re doing wrong, and tweak your performance to make it better. If you do it right, you might be mentally drained after 30 minutes.
Deliberate practice is common in music and in sports, but is rarely used in the context of speaking or teaching. In fact, knowledge workers in most disciplines rarely engage in deliberate practice. This limits how rapidly we get better at our jobs; it also means that deliberate practice might help you progress faster than your peers.
Key elements of deliberate practice include:
- Rapid iteration.
- Immediate feedback.
- Focus on a small part of the task that can be done in a short time.
Here’s a 30 minute deliberate practice exercise for improving your presentations:
- Select a ~60 second portion of a presentation that you made recently, or that you plan to make.
- Record yourself making that 60 second presentation. Use a webcam, camcorder, or your cellphone video camera to capture video and audio.
- Watch your presentation. If you haven’t seen yourself on video much, you’ll be appalled at how you look or sound. This is a good sign; it means that your speaking ability is about to improve dramatically.
- Decide what you’d like to adjust about your presentation. Then go back to Step 2, try again, making any changes you think will improve your speaking.
- Repeat the cycle of recording, watching, and adjusting 8 - 10 times.
You want to select only a ~60 second portion of your presentation to practice. By using only 60 second segments, you can go through the steps above maybe 8-10 times in half an hour (i.e., you can perform many iterations in a short time). The first time I did this, I recorded myself talking for 30 minutes. But you don’t really want to watch a 30 minute video of yourself talking—it gets boring—and in a 30 minute video, you’ll also find far too many things to change that you won’t be able to keep them straight in your mind.
This was the process I used to improved my teaching. For about a year, I had a camcorder set up in my living room, and I went through the record-watch-adjust cycle whenever I had a few moments to spare. Although I still have much to learn, a series of many practice sessions helped me to improve my teaching more quickly than anything else I’ve done, and ultimately allowed me to develop and launch my first MOOC in 2011. In the later parts of my teaching career, when I was learning how to create MOOC-style online lecture videos, the process of deliberate practice helped me get much better at that too.
If you try this technique, or if you apply deliberate practice to other areas of your life, please comment below and share your experience.
Q: What 60 seconds of a presentation should I choose?
A: Don’t spend too much time picking the “perfect” 60 seconds. The first time out, you might pick a piece of your presentation that you’re already comfortable with. Once you feel like you’re mastering a particular 60 second piece, go on and pick a different 60 second part, ideally something that you find challenging.
Q: I really don’t like watching or hearing myself on video.
A: That’s like saying that you don’t want accurate feedback on your own performance. The video camera reflects back to you how you’re presenting to others. You should find out how others are seeing you, and you will need accurate feedback if you want to improve.
Q: Can this improve my speaking ability in other settings as well, for example improving my ability to give critical feedback in a 1:1, or improving how I speak at my team’s weekly meeting?
A: Yes! You can use this method to practice your delivery in these other settings.
Q: In sports and in music, usually having a coach improves the feedback you get. Won’t I need one too?
A: If you can have a friend or mentor give you better feedback—both what they see in your performance, as well as suggestions for how to adjust things—this would certainly accelerate your learning. But it’s more important for you to get going quickly, and you’ll be able to give yourself plenty of good feedback just by watching yourself on video. In order to get inspiration for ways to improve, I also watch YouTube videos of great speakers (my favorites include Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs and Michelle Obama) to identify things they do, which I then try to mimic. This can come much later in your learning process though.
Q: Can I apply deliberate practice to other aspects of knowledge work?
A: I don’t have a great answer, but frequently think about this. One challenge is that in other areas of knowledge work than public speaking (such as delegation, strategic planning, writing, …) it isn’t always easy to get good feedback. But if you have any ideas, please let me know in the comments below.
Q: Doesn’t this method only improve the delivery of my presentation, but not the actual content of the presentation?
A: Yes, that’s right. I will have more to say about the content of presentations in a later article. If you are interested in this other topic, please follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter (@AndrewYNg) so that you will be notified when I write about that.