Deliberate Practice in Public Speaking

Jan 10

As Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his popular book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” an intensive practice regimen can result in people becoming stunning experts in surprising ways. There has been a lot of criticism of his points, most notably treating “10,000 hours of practice” as a magic number (and not simply an average of how long many experts from many different fields practiced), and certainly innate talent is a factor, but practice can work wonders.

The quality, not just the quantity, of the practice is quite important. I recommend the book “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How” by Daniel Coyle as an excellent read for a number of reasons. It does get into deliberate practice and how that can make a larger difference in less time than traditional practice. What’s the difference?

Deliberate practice is:

  • Focused on a particular small skill or sub-skill of a given area of expertise, such as reducing uhs in public speaking, or throwing accuracy in basketball.
  • Challenging. It doesn’t let the person simply coast or go through the motions. They are actively engaged and struggling to do just a little bit better than before.
  • (Often) short. Deliberate practice is quite challenging, particularly mentally. Don’t expect to do it for hours at a time. On the plus side, that can make it easier to do frequently, which is important to reap the benefits of practice.
  • Part of a feedback loop. Feedback needs to be accurate and fast (preferably immediate) to get the biggest benefit. You should quickly know how you did and how you can do better.

The Freakonomics Podcast episode “How to Become Great at Just About Anything” is a worthy listen on the subject of how to practice in a way to reach peak performance, and gets into some interesting examples.

When it comes to public speaking, what exercises can you think of? Think of short exercises focused on one small challenge or sub-skill, and how the person doing it would get fast feedback so they could improve. Please post your deliberate practice ideas for public speaking in the comments!


  1. Some ideas off the top of my head:

    Use of stage: take a speech a public figure gave, or a few pages from a novel, and read them. Transition from one part of the stage to another at appropriate points. Record yourself on video. After a few minutes, stop and review the video to see if your movement makes sense.

    Uhs: take random table topic ideas (there are lots of ideas out there: and set a timer for one minute. Record yourself. When the time goes off, stop the recording, watch or listen to it and see if you had any ahs or ums.
    Better yet: have a friend observe and stop you whenever you ah or um. Rephrase your sentence without the filler word and move on.

    Speech outlining:
    Grab the first news story from Skim it. Decide a key point you’d like to make about the story, perhaps an opinion. Brainstorm ideas for key points. Pick 3. Think of a question or story to open the speech with and how you can call back to it at the closing. Set a timer for a couple minutes to do this, to ensure you don’t get stuck and let yourself write freely.

  2. mike perez /

    use of stage: they say to move around the stage with purpose. I would suggest practicing the stage actor’s technique of “crossing” a stage and to a lesser extent the placement of feet and shoulders using the “blocking” technique. Quick, direct stage crosses to the front convey strength and confidence. Long, winding crosses to the back could be used to convey weakness and struggle. The blocking technique places your body at angles to the audience and is mainly used to show a stage actor’s relation to another actor on stage, so this is less important here but still can convey body language to the audience.

    Rent a recorded theater play from your local library and watch the actor’s crosses and blocking. See if you can read the underlaying message conveyed in those crosses and blocking. What is their character feeling? Then try to use those same moves in your speeches.

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