Making Good Speakers Great

20 Hours to Good Speech
The Basic Skills

Josh Kaufman, author of the international bestseller, The Personal MBA, gave a TEDx presentation showing how you can achieve basic proficiency in any area with just twenty hours of practice, whether you’re learning a language, an instrument or a new sport. It’s a four-step method: deconstruct the crucial skills, learn enough to self-correct, remove barriers to practice, then practice twenty hours. That’s forty minutes per day, for one month.

What if you were to apply that method to speaking? What are the crucial skills? To answer that question, you need to identify the essential characteristics of good speech. I think every speaker needs to be clear, confident and credible. Any specific challenge you encounter relates to one or more of those three.

Clarity gets you understood. Talking too fast, lacking projection and not opening your mouth enough are the main barriers to clarity. Confidence lends impact to your communication. Tension, rushing and holding your breath are the most common physical threats to confidence. Credibility gets people to accept your message. Speaking too fast, too quietly and having a voice that seems high are typical habits that undercut credibility.

Now you can identify the crucial physical skills necessary for good speech: relaxation, breathing and resonance. Relaxation increases your comfort level, slows your speech, and strengthens your voice. Breathing does all those things, plus increases depth and dissipates nervousness. Resonance amplifies and deepens your voice, making it authoritative and engaging.

Your next step is to find exercises that address those three main areas. Relaxation exercises should target grounding and posture, belly and lower back, shoulders and neck, and jaw and tongue. Breathing exercises should cultivate ease of breath, depth of breath and using breath generously to produce sound. (It should not focus on practicing how long you can make one breath last.) Resonance exercises should address openness, efficiency and feeling sound vibrations throughout your entire body.

Learning to self-correct is the tricky part, when it comes to good speech. Having lived with your habits for 10-20 years, it’s hard to recognize them, let alone change them. This is especially true with regard to breathing and resonance. You might get some benefit from just doing the exercises, if it’s a well-designed program, but you also risk reinforcing bad habits. At some point, you’ll want feedback from a coach, enough to avoid those traps and keep you moving forward.

Everyone admires mastery and expertise, and it’d be nice to excel at everything, but no one has time for that. Besides, you quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. Basic competence is better than having no skill at all. It’s surprising how far you can go with just the basics, and the payoff can be substantial. When it comes to good speech, the underlying skills aren’t complicated or mysterious. Learning the fundamentals of relaxation, breathing and resonance, and integrating those techniques in your everyday speech, will soon have you communicating with clarity, confidence and credibility.

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