If you have clicked on this article, perhaps one day you want to be a great presenter like Steve Jobs or Les Brown. But, you probably have also heard that you need about 10,000 hours to get that good. Except, the 10,000-hour rule has run through a telephone game which has distorted what the original author intended.
If you want to be an exceptional speaker you do not need to follow the 10,000-hour rule. It’s not what you have probably heard. First, let’s look at what it is and then what you should consider do to get better.
The myth of the 10,000-hour rule
The “10,000-hour rule” originally came from Ander Ericsson. He was researching sports athletes, musicians, etc. It was his observation was that on average a skilled violinist practiced about 10,000 hours.
But, the 10,000-hour rule got popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book the Outliers. Malcolm tells the story of the Beatles. He mentions how they practiced regularly in a small club in Hamburg, Germany. Malcolm further cites other examples in his book. But, the Beatles example is the one that gets the most press.
In addition to being incorrect, there are additional problems with the interpretation of the 10,000-hour rule mentioned in Malcolm’s book. One is 10,000 is an average and not a magic absolute number. There is no law of the universe that keeps track of how many hours you put in and then magically bestows you the title of grandmaster when you hit 10,000.
Anders Ericsson, the original researcher, himself notes that 10,000 hours is an average. The average itself varies from one musical instrument to another musical instrument. It also varies from one sport to another sport. So, for any individual person, the amount of time required could greatly vary. Anders notes it could easily be anywhere from 7,400 to 15,000 hours.
10,000-hours was just an average for one type of mastery. It can actually vary based on skill set.
It’s not just the hours, but what you do with it
The other problem is the type of practice and thought you put into that really matters. I know this from experience. When I was in Houston, TX doing work for the International Space Station I joined several local Toastmasters clubs.
The reason was a former World Champion of Public Speaking named Darren LaCroix insisted that the only way anyone could get better was “Stage Time. Stage Time. Stage Time.” This was way before 2009 when Malcolm Gladwell published his book and way before the 10,000-hour rule became a thing.
Darren LaCroix was a real entertainer and a World Champion of Public Speaking. So in my eyes what he said had weight. As someone who had put in an enormous amount of time as a stand-up comedian, what he said made total sense.
If you put in the work, you will reap the rewards. But there is a big difference between the process for standup comedy and delivering speeches. I only realized that later.
30 years of experience or 1 year of experience 30 times
So, I joined a Toastmaster club near the Johnson Space Center. At that club, there was an old guy who I will name “Joe.” That is not his real name, but you get the point. Anyway, he had been a Toastmaster at that very club for about 30 years.
The club itself met every week and had a 2-hour meeting. Not everyone would give a prepared speech every time. But, consider this. There were 52 meetings every year. Plus you had to practice to deliver a decent speech. That could easily be several hours too. Since he regularly attended and prepared for each meeting across 30 years, you would think that Joe had already put in the 10,000 hours. By that calculation, he should be world-class.
However, let’s just say that there are two types of people in this world. One is a person who has 30 years of experience. The other is a person who has 1 year of experience 30 times. Looking at Joe’s quality as a speaker I would put him in the later category.
Is it natural talent or not?
When I joined that club, I had recently graduated from college. I would say that I was not that great of a speaker. But, I regularly beat Joe when it came to deciding who was the best speaker at the meeting.
Now you might say, that is because I was more naturally talented than Joe. I see where you might think that. But, I had joined a Toastmasters club when I was in college. This was due to the Dean of the College of Engineering, Dean Hightower, highly recommended that I join. He said it would be useful for future job interviews. I agreed, so I joined.
I belonged to that club for the entire time I was in college. They met every week except for summer break. Considering that, timewise I was about 25 years behind Joe.
However, I did have an advantage. As a budding engineer, I rather enjoyed analyzing things. Perhaps, I could say that I enjoyed speech evaluation way more than delivering the speech itself.
I spent time figuring out the best framework to quickly evaluate speeches. Looking for additional points to analyze and suggest an improvement, I poured over the vast amount of material provided by Toastmasters. I think that this helped me on several fronts.
How it helped was me was like this. I spent time analyzing my speech before I delivered it looking for weak points. In addition, I reviewed the feedback I got, deciding what to keep and what not to keep. There were notes from the last feedback session so I be less likely to make the same mistakes.
Where does feedback go wrong?
Looking back, I would say the passion for analysis and improvement was probably also part of Darren’s system. As a stand-up comedian, you get instant feedback. Either the joke was funny and people laughed or they did not. If they did not you either try to improve the joke or take it out.
How is that different from delivering speeches? The feedback cycle is a little slower and requires a bit more of an open mind. The way Toastmasters works is during the later part of the meeting another person will give feedback on the delivered speech in front of everyone.
There are a couple of problems with this system. One is that most people want to be nice. So, many people will say some nice things about the speech and give a minor improvement.
Another problem is not everyone is a good analyzer nor a good adviser. Even good evaluators can have bad days and give mediocre advice. So the speaker may not be real clear on what they need to improve.
The third problem is that for most speakers, that speech is the only time they are going to give it. There are no redoes. It is hard to polish a speech if you are never going to do it again.
A fourth problem is speech evaluation is just one reaction by one member. It can be hard to determine if the advice should really be taken seriously or not. Also, since the advice is given by the evaluator the speaker can just accept it as is and not do any hard thinking if he or she prefers.
How stand-up is different
Let’s look at the difference with a stand-up routine. A stand-up comedian will use the same material over and over. Every time he goes to the comedy club he brings out his set of jokes and tests them one by one.
The feedback of the audience is unambiguous. They either laugh or don’t. It is not one person’s opinion. It the natural reaction of a group of people. Of course, if only one person laughed that would be embarrassing too.
On the other hand, at least at Toastmasters there is some to give advice. Even the audience write comments. Sometimes they are helpful. But for the stand-up comedian, the burden is on him is to figure out why the jokes didn’t work. That can take a time.
This sounds to be mostly an indictment of the evaluation system in Toastmasters, but this is just a sad reality of stand-up comedy vs public speaking. Creating a good feedback system for public speaking is just much harder. It can be slower, harder to quantify, and harder to implement.
Public speakers vs musicians.
In fact, when you look at it this way, musicians also have it much easier than public speakers, but only from the technical point of view. If you wanted to become a good performing pianist, you have a very clear guideline.
For example, there is the theme to “Star Wars.” You know how it is supposed to sound. There is sheet music for it. You can work at it hour after hour correcting and reducing mistakes bit by bit. At some point, you will become proficient enough that it will sound great.
There are also some basic patterns for what would make a hit popular song. But in the case of music making it is much more of a creative endeavor. There is no right answer for that either. But, when it comes to just technical side the path is clear. The feedback is also fast.
If you are a speaker you could like a musician, mimic something. There is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. That is a good model. But remember there are limits. All that would get you is a better ability at sounding like Martin Luther King.
It is great practice for vocal variety, but not so much for learning good speech composition. King’s most famous part was ad-libbed.
Sell, inform, inspire …
Now, you may say just wait a minute. But isn’t there a good feedback system for presenters? What about sales? That would be a valid point.
After a sales presentation or a pitch to a VC, You typically get feedback from the client. Either you make the sale or you don’t. However, there are multiple elements in the sales process outside the presentation. For example, there is the offer itself and objection handling that also affects the sale. You need to take those into consideration.
But presentations come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you will deliver sales presentations. Then, you may want to do a TEDx-like talk to inform and inspire. Your employee may need a pep talk to get motivated. You may have an after-dinner talk to entertain. There all kinds of scenarios for presentations.
For all of these, there are some basic things in common. For example, vocal variety and basic slide design. However, there are some things that are not in common like how you would structure your speech. That can be a big difference.
In fact, if you looked at Russel Brunson who grabbed $3 million dollars at one of the 10x Conferences, you will notice that his style is very different from just about any Toastmaster who won the World Champion of Public Speaking.
You may even think that Russell is an average speaker. He got nervous at the beginning. The design of his slides is not slick. His delivery is just ok. But, his results are not arguable. He got $3 million dollars. That is a big deal.
What most people do
Considering all this variation, the difficulty of getting good quality feedback, and the further difficulty of implementing that feedback into the next presentation, it is very easy to see why people do not improve. But there has to be a way. What you need is a clear process.
The typical process of most people when they create a speech is as follows. Their boss or they decided that they need to do a speech. They create it. They practice it. They deliver it. If it goes well, great! If not well there will always be another time. That is not a good enough process.
It doesn’t take into consideration the various criteria for succeeding. It doesn’t put in the time for reflection. It doesn’t even consider how to practice and improve over the long haul. This needs to be done!
The fact is that deliberately thinking about your process is crucial for making good and consistent work. There is not a magical recipe that will work for every presentation every time. But, if you look at the problems I have just mentioned above, I think you see where the holes are and can consider ways to fix them.
The 10,000-hours rule sounded like the “simple” route to success. All you need to do was put in the hard work and after 10,000-hours you would magically become a presentation rock star.
However, looking at what the original research actually said, there is more to the story than that. Deliberate practice is needed. However, most presenters do not have a good system in place to get better on a regular basis. There are many elements to this and I will explore this in future articles.
I hope that this article served as a good hint for you. I help people effectively use logic, psychology, and rhetoric to build powerful presentations. A good presentation can make or break a business. Just contact me on Twitter, Facebook, or the contact form here, if you want to comment or needed help.