speaking habits

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.

Good Habits Make Good Speakers

During a recent executive speech coaching session I was working with a client and having him repeat a single line from his speech over and over. I wanted him to develop the habit of saying a key phrase a certain way so he would get a particular response from his listeners.  When we took a break from the practice, he asked me, “Have you read the book The Power of Habit?” I hadn’t, and he told me to check it out because it was relevant to our work. I’m glad I took his advice. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by award-winning New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg vividly explains why habits exist, how they shape our lives, and how they can be changed. While it’s not a book that focuses on presentation skills per se, its message is one that will benefit all speakers.

In his book, Duhigg says that the way to change any habit is to build awareness so you can identify which habits you’re currently using. You then build new habits by using the old habit as a blueprint. His model, what he calls “The Habit Loop,” consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, when you wake up each morning, the first thing you do is walk into the bathroom and see your toothbrush (the cue). You then brush your teeth (the routine). Finally, you feel the reward of a tingling clean mouth.

Almost all our daily activities revolve around this habit loop. Therefore, to make any real changes in life, it’s imperative that you get to the core of the drivers or motivations behind the habit. In essence, if you build your awareness and understand why you are doing what you do, then you have the ability to change ineffective habits and replace them with new more effective ones.

So how does all this apply to public speaking?

Your Habits Can Impact Your Presentation Skills

People come to me every day with all sorts of fears and uncertainties about presenting: “I get stage fright,” “I’m not a good speaker.” “Everyone will laugh at me.” The list is endless. My job is to educate people about the tools and skills they can use, and the habits they can develop, so that when they get up to speak they exude confidence and power.

So think about your speaking anxiety or challenge. What’s the cue that starts the negative behavior? What’s the routine you then normally engage in? Finally, what’s the reward you get from that? For example:

  • You get an email announcing that you have been selected to speak at the company meeting. (Cue)
  • You divert your attention from the fact that you have to speak by wasting time and doing everything but preparing. As a result, you run out of time to develop a powerful message and you don’t practice your delivery.  (Routine)
  • You put off the hard work of speech preparation and keep your fears at bay by distracting yourself and successfully avoid presentation practice. (Reward)

The outcome is an anxiety-ridden, half-baked performance that bores the audience and makes you feel even less confident. But that “habit loop” is a fairly typical pattern for many people who have stage fright. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to prepare for a speech by sheer avoidance, but that is a key message of Duhigg’s book: Our habits are so ingrained that we don’t even know we are doing them, even when they seem illogical.

So the next time you get that email announcing that you are to speak at the company meeting (cue), rather than goof off, decide to make a new routine that consists of three easy steps: 1) Develop your content, 2) Build your PowerPoint slides, and 3) Practice your delivery out loud at least three times. You’ll then experience the reward of feeling prepared and confident when you stand up to speak, and stage fright will be a thing of the past.

No matter what speaking challenges you’re attempting to overcome, rest assured that you can change your habits and develop your speaking skills. Simply find the cue, identify the routine, and feel the reward. By following this simple process, a new you, complete with new habits, will emerge.