The One Thing You Must Do to Improve Your Speaking


It’s practice. That’s the one thing. No need to be coy about it. If you practice, you’ll improve.

I know. It’s not sexy, or rocket science. Or easy. Which makes it even less sexy.

But practice is where the magic is. Here are 10 ways to practice your presentation skills:

  1. Multitask.

    Yes, this goes against the avalanche of very sound “don’t multitask” advice out there. But you don’t have to create more time in your day to practice your oral communication skills. You just have to send less text-based communication. Instead of sending an email or text message, pick up the phone or get out off your butt and walk down the hall. Sitting is killing you anyway, so take a walk and communicate with another human using your vocal chords. Happy body + practicing presentation mouth = two birds and very productive multitasking.

    In addition to giving you a reason and way to practice your presentation skills, communicating in person is especially important if you’re making a big ask of someone, need to give them some constructive feedback or have to share some sensitive information.

  2. Leverage your existing communication occasions.

    Again, you don’t have to look for new places or opportunities to practice—use the ones you’ve already got. If you present at a regular status meeting, stand up when it’s your turn to report or share your content in a different way (use a whiteboard, for example). If you call someone and get their voicemail, leave a message and listen to it—most voicemail systems allow you to review your message at the end. If you like it, send it. If you don’t, re-record. It’s a great way to improve the quality of your communication.

    Practice outside of work. You could be having a beer with a friend and telling them a story about the flat tire you got on the weekend. You don’t need to tell him that you’re working on your eye contact, but you can use the opportunity to do so as you tell them about the salty tow truck driver who saved your day.

  3. Enroll your boss, colleagues, or confidant.

    Pull your boss aside before you jump on a conference call and tell her what you’re working on as it relates to your presentation skills development. Ask her to listen for those things so she can provide you with feedback afterwards. You could also create a speaking buddy system with some trusted colleagues so you can provide each other with feedback and coaching. What gets measured gets done and these feedback requests will focus your efforts.

  4. Record for posterity. (And practice.)

    One of the best ways to improve your speaking skills is to record yourself speaking and listen to the recording. Nothing shines a light on your development areas better than hearing your own voice. If you’re on a conference call, turn on the voice recorder on your smartphone. After the call, listen back and ask what works and what you would do differently next time? You can do the same thing in meetings or in presentations (with the permission of the attendees/participants) so you have a point to reference to work and improve from.

  5. Identify low risk opportunities.

    Look for low risk opportunities to share your knowledge and ideas with an audience that will benefit from your insight. Think about individuals, team, organizations or audiences who might benefit from what you know and/or are passionate about.

    You could volunteer to speak at your next department meeting and present a summary of trends you’re seeing that relate to your group’s priorities. You could provide a snapshot of competitive activity or an interesting strategy that’s working in another industry and how your team could apply it in your context. In short, research a topic that’s of interest to you and helpful to your colleagues and share the learning. It gives you an opportunity to practice and improve your skills and boost your profile.

    You could also look for opportunities in your community. What knowledge do you have that might benefit your child’s school, your faith community, your child’s sports league, the charity you support. If, for example, you’re a cyber security expert who typically consults to large organizations, you might do a short presentation at a school on simple online practices people could do to boost security for themselves and their kids.

    Use these low-risk speaking opportunities to have some fun and stretch yourself.

  6. Join Toastmasters.

    I was a Toastmaster for three years and I can tell you first hand it is a great organization. They provide a supportive environment that is designed to give you a forum to practice in and freedom to expand your repertoire. Their proven structure ensures everyone gets an opportunity to speak, practice their skills and get some feedback. Toastmasters is also a great way to meet a cross section of your community you wouldn’t otherwise meet, all of whom are interested in growth and development and willing to do something about it.

  7. Watch TED talks.

    TED talks are a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to improve their presentation skills. Watch TED Talks and other great speakers online to get inspired and watch for things they are doing that you can try. You can also watch for quotes or other content that you could use or reference in one of your own presentations. Or you might see a TED speaker share a concept in a visually interesting way that inspires some ideas for one of your own talks. You could also deconstruct what they’re doing well, things that you would like to replicate. This helps you keep good habits and practices top of mind as you’re developing own communication skills.

  8. Teach others.

    One of the fastest ways to mastery is to teach people. Look for opportunities to teach others what you’re learning about speaking. You’ll get to practice speaking, share your knowledge and give back.

  9. Focus your efforts.

    It’s easy to get frustrated if you try and work on too many things at once, sometimes resulting in a backslide in your development. If you want to catalyze your growth and development in anything, including speaking, isolate and work on one skill at a time.

  10. Be patient and kind.

    This is an important one. Be kind to yourself as you’re trying to improve. Recognize that ignorance is bliss and while you may have been more comfortable in your old ways, you were probably less effective. As you start working on your speaking skills, you may frustrated because there is a gap between your ideal performance and where you are now. Be kind with yourself. Patience, kindness and persistent practice will pay off.

So, it’s not sexy or easy, the practicing. But the more you practice the more quickly you will move into the realm of unconscious competence: You’ll be able to do the things you want to do without even thinking about it. Once you’ve done that with one aspect of your speaking skills, you start on the next until it’s second nature. And then you rinse and repeat.

If you’d like some more tips on speaking well, sign up for our helpful guide on How to Research, Plan and Rehearse for Your Next Presentation. It’s my best advice all packaged up in a printable, easy-to-use, step-by-step guide.

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