Improving Public Speaking Skills: What the 10,000 hour rule gets wrong

Updated: Mar 1

You might have heard of the “10,000 hour rule.” Researchers looked at chess players and others at the top of their game and found that to reach “expert” level in a field, you needed about 10,000 hours of practice. Some say that it can be applied to any field, including improving public speaking skills.

Makes sense.

The more you practice at something the better you get.

But the problem in contemporary blogs and articles is that many who quote the rule forget the 2nd half: It wasn’t just 10,000 hours of practice, but it was practice combined with effective feedback from a skilled coach!

What does this have to do with public speaking?

Well, there are people who give many, many, speeches but don’t ever improve. They never seek out the advice or help of a skilled public speaking coach or someone willing to tell them the truth. The coaches weren’t there as cheerleaders to tell the people “good job” afterwards. No, they gave specific and actionable ways to improve.

Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.

What the researchers also found was that the quality of the practice mattered. Chess players and musicians were constantly challenged throughout practice to improve; they weren’t just allowed to go through the motions.

So what does this mean for you as a public speaker?

Find someone who will give you honest feedback—someone who won’t just tell you, “Oh, good job.” This is why Toastmasters is so effective: Participants not only deliver prepared speeches at meetings but they get feedback from another experienced member. If you’ve been waiting to join Toastmasters, this is your signal to go join. Improving public speaking skills takes practice and feedback from experts.

Beyond Toastmasters, find someone in your company or life that you know is a good speaker and who is willing to provide advice on how to improve—no cheerleaders. Listen to his or her advice and go with it—shut out everyone else who only wants to tell you, “good job.” Then, actively seek out bigger opportunities to speak. Push yourself to go beyond your typical audiences and typical speeches. You will never know how good you are until you test yourself.

Photo by Elijah Ekdahl on Unsplash

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