I carry multiple things around with my hands all the time so I figure I should be pretty good at juggling fiery torches and swords by now. Pass me those swords.

If only it were that easy. I’m not breaking any new ground here by saying that you have to participate in a huge amount of dedicated practice to learn any new skill. In fact, many scientific studies and books have been written on that topic, most notably The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell which repeatedly cites the need to practice something for 10,000 hours before achieving expert status.

A graphic summary of The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Students are capable of learning an incredible amount during their high school experience. They learn to ace content exams, demonstrate learning by creating outstanding projects, and obtain often lofty standards of learning on performance-based tasks. Even many spectacular musicians and athletes have learned their craft in the facilities of our school building. I have been teaching for over a decade, and I have seen students who are really good at all of these things, and more. I know they will continue to learn and improve as their post-secondary lives progress, but they have shown themselves to be obviously excellent right now. What I haven’t seen much of are students who have learned to be outstanding public speakers.

I’ve made this ball in the basket a couple times so I’m ready for the NBA!

Think back through your educational experience. How many hours did you spend studying for tests and quizzes? Completing intricate projects? Crafting a beautiful visual presentation? Practicing an instrument? Working on your jump shot? And now…how many hours did you spend practicing to speak in front of a group? Maybe you ran through a speech once or twice, but if we all only ran through the material we were trying to learn once or twice, we would not be met with success; as has been the case for so many of my students in the venue of public speaking.

Practicing is the key to learning. Yes, even for speaking.

You have to practice to learn. Students don’t often associate the words practice and learning with how they speak; it’s just something they do. You’re either good at it or you aren’t. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Everybody starts at a different level of comfort, success, and natural ability, but practicing is a necessary step in the process of learning to become a better speaker. All too often I have students who arrive in my class as seniors who haven’t really spent much concerted time practicing to learn how to speak publicly.

So what can you do?

Some people stand in front of a mirror. Good start. Some people record and critique themselves. Even better. Some people find a person or persons who are willing to listen to their entire speech and provide feedback. Now we’re getting somewhere! The more dynamic and realistic your practice is, the better you will get at public speaking. Heck, why not ask your teachers if there are any opportunities available for you to speak to your class or even larger groups? They’d probably love to help you out! And while you’re speaking during all of this practice, be sure to focus on how things are going:

Verify that everything is being pronounced correctly.

Think about the movements of your body.

Track and analyze where you are looking while you speak.

Listen to the speed, volume, and rhythm of your voice.

Plan to insert emotion into your delivery.

Arbitrary speaking doesn’t count.

Just talking to people doesn’t count as practicing. Speaking because your teacher made you stand up during class doesn’t count as practicing. Presenting a class project that you worked really hard on doesn’t even count as practicing. These things only count as practicing if you are deliberately thinking about how you are speaking.

So all of my students are grunting cave-people?

No. Almost all of my students are serviceable public speakers. I would even classify a large amount as good public speakers. The reason that I took the time to write this post is because I’ve taught students who are amazing scientists, excellent mathematicians, outstanding writers, dominant athletes, and captivating musicians. In fact, I’ve seen multiple of each of those. But I’ve haven’t even taught one who has blown me away with their abilities in public speaking.

Put in the time to practice speaking. Be that student! I’m waiting for you to blow me away.

Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on the secret structure of great talks