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Practise, practise, PRACTISE!: the 10,000 hour 'rule'

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One of the questions I'm sometimes asked is whether Malcolm Gladwell's claim in his book Outliers that you need 10,000 hours practice to become a superstar in your field applies to presentations and public speaking. The simple answer is, "of course not." Even professional motivational speakers and politicians don't clock up that amount of time on their feet. But the point behind the claim, that 'practice makes perfect' is absolutely, unarguably, 100% correct.

For those of you who haven't read the book, Gladwell claims that virtually anyone who has become an undisputed leader in his/her field has practised at it for 20 hours a week, for ten years before making it big - 10,000 hours. He quotes the Beatles as playing live 1,200 in Hamburg between 1960 and 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time (they'd play for 8 or 9 hours at a stretch!). Likewise, he says Bill Gates logged over 10,000 hours programming once he gained access to a high school computer at the age of 13.

(NB: This 10,000 hours, by the way, has to be time spent continually trying to improve, not just going through the motions. Otherwise anyone who'd spent 10 years in a job would automatically be world-class. Ten years' experience can just be one years' worth repeated 10 times!

As the computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once said, "Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with,. . . and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.")

Gladwell's claim builds on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericcson who conducted research in the early 1990s at the Academy of Music in Berlin, studying 3 groups of violinists.  The first group were stars (they might go on to become soloists), the second were good ( they might go on to play in an orchestra) and the third were students who would probably never play professionally (maybe they'd become music teachers). All of the students has started playing around the age of 5 and in the beginning they all practiced roughly the same amount of time for the first few years.  But by the age of 14, the potential soloists were clocking in about 6 hours a week, and this rose to 20 hours by the age of 21.

He discovered the same with pianists. By the age of 20, amateurs had clocked up about 2,000 hours of practice, but the potential stars had 10,000 under their belt. With both instruments, Ericcson failed to find any ‘naturals’, i.e. prodigies who effortless mastered their instrument.  Neither did he find ordinary people who worked harder than anyone else and yet never made it to the top.  In other words, he never found people worked hard and never made it. The correlation between good and expert was clearly delineated by the amount of practice the musicians put in. 

So your parents' exhortations that 'practice makes perfect' were right. But this doesn't mean you have to log up that amount of time speaking before an audience to master the art of giving presentations. Perhaps to be a concert pianist, violinist or chess grand master, but a great presenter? No - that's just over the top as a claim. Heck - I don't think Justin Bieber had even been awake 10,000 hours awake before he became a hit.

What you do have to do is practice. Do you think Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning became the NFL's best quarterbacks just by turning up on a Sunday afternoon and throwing a few passes? Or by spending hour after hour on the practice field, throwing to their receivers, and as much time poring through the playbook, memorizing drills? How many golf balls has Tiger Woods hit in practice? How many practice baskets did Michael Jordan shoot?

Yet most people about to make a presentation seem to think they can just turn up at the appointed time and perform well with only a modicum of preparation. English is a rich and incredibly varied language, and there are probably 50 ways you can make any particular point. One of them will be better than the other 49. What are the chances the 'word fairy' will come along and place that exact phrase in your brain and mouth exactly when you need them (a point in time, bear in mind, when you might be feeling stressed and under pressure)?

When you think about it, such a slapdash approach is incredibly arrogant and even insulting to the audience. If a presentation isn't important enough to rehearse, it's not important enough to listen to.

This is why you should always think about exactly what you're going to say well in advance (not the night before), and write it down. Then you can practice delivering it. At first just reading it over and over until the structure and rhythm are cemented in your brain and then saying it out loud, with the speed, pauses, intonation and body language you'll use on the day until you can almost do it in your sleep.

Most people would agree that the late Steve Jobs was both a great speaker and a master showman. Many people think he was a 'natural' because he made his keynote presentations seem so effortless, almost as if he was having a conversation with the audience. But they only looked effortless. His informality and casual approach were the result of grueling rehearsals; he'd practise each keynote for tens of hours, over a period of weeks.

From his first speech to his last, Sir Winston Churchill (the man who, according to President Kennedy, "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle") was fanatical about thorough preparation and worked as hard in his seventies to prepare a speech as he did in his twenties.

He regarded each one as a work of art, and treated them accordingly. "I do not compose quickly,” he wrote. “Everything is worked out by hard labour and frequent polishing. I intend to polish till it glitters."

He would spend days dictating a speech to his secretary, testing words and phrases and muttering to himself as he paced up and down, cigar in mouth. And then finally, he would sit down at his desk and revise what he had written, applying final alterations, insertions, substitutions and deletions like the finishing touches to a painting. He was obsessed with making his words pleasing to the ear and liked to think he set his ideas to rhetoric as a composer would his to music (to mix artistic metaphors).

In his book ‘ Savrola' he writes about how his hero prepared a speech:

“What was there to say? Savrola saw a peroration, which would cut deep into the hearts of a crowd, a high thought, a fine simile, expressed in that correct diction which is comprehensible even to the most illiterate, and appeals to the most simple: something to lift their minds from the material cares of life and to awake sentiment. His ideas began to take the form of words, to group themselves into sentences; he murmured to himself, the rhythm of his own language swayed him; instinctively he alliterated. . . That was a point; could not tautology accentuate it? The sound would please their ears, the sense improve and stimulate their minds.”

He would often rehearse his speeches in the bath. Once his valet heard his voice growling behind the bathroom door, knocked on it and enquired, "Were you speaking to me, sir?" And Churchill replied, "No - I was speaking to the House of Commons."

Such preparation is the best antidote to nerves that exists. When people say they're nervous about speaking in public, what they're really frightened of is failure. And the best way of knowing you're not going to fail is being confident that you know exactly what you're going to say.

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