daily practice

Let Your Public Speaking Skills Age Like Fine Wine

Imagine having the opportunity to write a speech about a topic you know and love and deliver it nine times in the course of a day to a rapt audience, gaining new supporters and perfecting your delivery each time. That’s precisely the opportunity afforded to my client David Amadia, VP of Sales for Ridge Vineyards, when he attended the Vancouver International Wine Festival last month and participated in their “Meet Your Match” event. “Meet Your Match” is the wine education version of speed dating. Small groups of wine enthusiasts spent six minutes with each wine producer to taste their wine, hear their story, and ask questions. In those six minutes, David tutored the wine tasters on the various qualities of “fine” wine—it comes from a great vineyard, reflects the patch of ground where it is grown, is age-able and will improve over time, stimulates the mind and the palette, and has many complex levels and flavors. He introduced newcomers to Ridge’s exceptional single vineyard wines and updated fans on the latest spring releases.

He also told snippets of the fascinating history of Ridge Vineyards—a story that can’t be fully told in a few minutes but that included the following highlights:

The history of Ridge Vineyards began in 1885 when Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor, bought 180 acres of land near the top of Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains because it reminded him of the terraced slopes and cool climate of his homeland in Italy. Perrone built the Monte Bello Winery and produced the first vintage under that name in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility today.

The winery closed during Prohibition, reopened with repeal, but closed definitively in the early 1940s. New Ridge partners formed in 1950 when three Stanford Research Institute engineers bought the property as a weekend retreat and made a quarter-barrel of “estate” cabernet. That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era. Working only on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity.

In 1968 Paul Draper joined the partnership after he realized that if three engineers working on weekends could make world class wine, it had to be the rich land that was responsible for their success and not the winemakers themselves. Under Draper’s guidance, the old Perrone winery was restored and the consistent quality and international reputation of Ridge Wines established.

That history is lot of ground to cover in a few short minutes. Add in information about the various wines being tasted and random questions from the audience and you can see how tight, focused, and polished David’s presentations had to be.

David was proud to introduce Ridge and its highly regarded estate wines, and he was delighted to meet new customers. But he also savored the unique opportunity to consciously practice his public speaking skills over and over in a relaxed venue as he gained experience, skill, and control with each new group.

So take a lesson from David Amadia. While you may never have a chance to do this sort of speed dating version of public speaking, you can find ways to practice—whether formally or informally—in front of small groups every day. Whether at the water cooler or at the dinner table, the more you tell your stories, interact with others, answer questions, and practice your delivery, the more you’ll find that your speaking skills are a lot like fine wine—they get better with time.

Use the Power of Practice to Build Your Speaking Skills

The psychologist and philosopher William James famously wrote: “99% of our activity is purely automatic; all of our life is nothing but a mass of habits.”After reading the book The Power of Habitby Charles Duhigg (which I first wrote about here), it is clear that habits define virtually every aspect of our lives, from how much we eat, save, or spend to how we work, communicate, and interact with others. One interesting example in Duhigg’s book focuses on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. As a child, Phelps was high strung and intense, so his mother got him involved in swimming as a way to manage his tension and anxiety. That’s when Phelps met his coach, Bob Bowman, whose main goal was to help Phelps’ stay calm and relaxed. Bowman also wanted his student to develop automatic willpower so Phelps could become competitive and the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.

One of the tools Bowman used was something he called “watching the video tape.” There was no physical video; he was referring instead to the practice of visualization. Every morning and night, Phelps was to relax his body and visualize his practice in the pool. He was instructed to imagine every aspect of his routine in his head and to see every detail clearly.

During the 2008 Olympics, Phelps continued this habit of visualization, just as he had every day since he was 10. It’s a good thing he did. During the 200 meter butterfly, his strongest event, his goggles filled with water. He couldn’t see anything. But he went on automatic mode and visualized the race even though he was unable to see the wall, the other swimmers, or the swim lanes. And he won another gold medal and set a world record. When he was asked afterwards how he was able to win the race under those conditions, he said it was because of his power of visualization. He didn’t need to physically see anything; he could see it all in his mind.

Public speakers can learn a lot from this powerful example.

To be truly great at presenting, you have to develop automatic willpower to prepare for every eventuality. You have to prepare your content and then take the time to practice and rehearse your delivery even when you think you don’t have the time to practice or don’t want to practice. Like Phelps, you must create practice routines (or habits) that lead to success.

I recommend all types of practice routines, including:

  • Visualizing yourself giving the perfect presentation.
  • Practicing sections of your speech to yourself when you’re doing the dishes, walking the dog, etc.
  • Doing formal practice sessions in front of others. During these practice sessions, ask people to comment on specific things you want to improve, such as vocal skills, gestures, eye contact, etc.
  • Utilizing small, everyday interactions to practice key skills. For example, during water cooler chat, practice your gestures. At dinner, practice your storytelling skills.

When you practice in a variety of venues and ways, the key skills you want to improve will become more natural and a part of who you are. Ultimately, you have to build your habits, or your habits will build you. Which habits are you trying to eliminate or improve? Let me know in the comments section below.

The Secret to Being a Great Presenter: Continuous Learning

Continuous learning is a key indicator of success. That’s because learning, at any stage of your career, means growth. New skills, new behaviors, and new knowledge translate into new opportunities. Achievement oriented people love and embrace this type of challenge. I’ve found that people seek continuous learning for various reasons. Sometimes it’s simply for the joy of learning. Other times there’s an outside force, such as a promotional opportunity or feedback from a boss or colleague that something needs to be fixed. And in some cases, the desire for learning stems from an internal force—the realization of a limitation or the feeling of being “fed up” with a certain behavior or attitude.

Whatever the driver, continuous learning is a process that requires a deep personal desire, a commitment of time, and the willingness to exert effort. What kind of effort? Well, that depends on what you’re trying to learn. In terms of learning related to improving presentation skills, the top things to work at are:

  • Become a consumer of speaking: One of the most important ongoing best practices for sustaining your skills as a public speaker is to become a “consumer of speaking.” This means that you observe and analyze every speaker you see in every situation, from the principal giving the welcome address, to your boss at staff meetings, to the pastor in your church. Notice specific skills and behaviors. What are these speakers doing that engage or distract you? What skills or attitude do you want to emulate or avoid?
  • Set your long-term goals: Skill improvement takes a long time. The first step is to identify your strengths and development areas and pinpoint goals you can commit to achieving within the next three months. Select one key strength (a skill you already do well and want to refine even more, such as using gestures or enunciating clearly) and one area you want to develop (such as adding stories to your presentation or working on your inflection). It’s also important to identify why you want to take action in these areas, as well as the result you are looking for.
  • Commit to daily practice: One easy way to quickly expand your speaking skills is by using your everyday meetings and social events as opportunities for skill practice. First, identify all the meetings, events and social commitments in a typical week, and then assign a specific skill to practice at each of these meetings. For example, you can practice raising your volume at a staff meeting, your gestures at the dinner table, and your posture when waiting in line at the dry cleaners. You can see how quickly your practice time will accumulate!
  • Leave no stone unturned: Yes, we are all busy and overloaded with our daily events, but there are dozens of opportunities every day to improve your public speaking skills. You can hire a coach, attend a class, or join a toastmasters group. Anything will help if your mind is clear that this is something you want to accomplish. Even your most modest effort will pay off.

Above all else, brag about your success! If you become a consumer of speaking, set long-term goals, practice daily, and leave no stone unturned, you deserve to celebrate. When it comes to continuous learning, every day will offer new opportunities for success, growth, and professional advancement.