Building Systems for Speaking

Q&A: How can I get started with improving my public speaking skills?

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about customer development, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

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Today’s post answers this reader question:
Q: How can I get started with improving my public speaking skills?

I love this question. People often underestimate the importance of prioritizing improving communication skills, and public speaking is one great skill to focus on honing as you grow as a leader. But beyond developing the skill itself, sometimes the hardest part is choosing ways to get started and commit to action.

Over the years, I’ve learned some key lessons from my work hosting public speaking training workshops, both at private workshops for corporate teams and at public workshops in partnership with meetup groups / community organizations / conferences.

In this piece, I’ll cover:

  1. Understanding common roadblocks to getting started with speaking

  2. Reframing roadblocks as opportunities

  3. Finding ways to build systems for speaking to make getting started easier

Understand Common Roadblocks

During these public speaking training workshops I host, when I ask people, “What’s keeping you from speaking (more) today?”, here are some common responses I get:

  • "I don’t know what I want to talk about”

  • "I feel like this topic has been talked about before”

  • “I don’t know where to get started”

  • "I’m afraid I am not good at speaking”

Largely, these roadblocks can be grouped into a few themes: defining specific goals and brainstorming specific talk topics, creating commitments, and focusing on improving speaking skills.

Reframe Roadblocks As Opportunities

Once you understand these roadblocks, you can start to see them as opportunities.

If you’re having trouble defining specific goals and brainstorming specific talk topics, set aside time to do both.

If you struggle with creating commitments, find accountability partners in friends and commit to specific habits on a specific cadence.

And if you really want to focus on improving your speaking skills, you need to invest effort in creating continuous improvement habits.

Build Systems for Speaking with This Six Step Plan

About five years ago, I decided to focus more on public speaking. At the time, I had limited speaking experience. I had experience presenting to small to medium-sized audiences of people I was somewhat familiar with: at pitch meetings, at team all-hands meetings, etc. However, I did not regularly present to large audiences or to complete strangers.

After developing systems for speaking to help myself improve and committing to action, I’ve now presented to many large audiences of complete strangers, including keynotes, talks, panels, and workshops at several international conferences.

If you’re starting from limited to no public speaking experience, here’s my six step plan that you can take inspiration from:

  1. Create momentum.
    With clear goals and a backlog of talk ideas, you’ll be eager to get started.

    1. Craft a specific, achievable goal.
      At first, my goal was too vague, simply, “get better at public speaking”. Eventually, I iterated towards “give one 15 minute lightning talk at a local meetup within 6 months”.
      If you need a template for setting a more specific goal, “do X at Y within Z time” is a great format.

    2. Choose topics to explore.
      I did a few timeboxed brainstorming exercises to brainstorm potential lightning talk topics. Some questions I asked: What’s a project I worked on for which my learnings could be useful to other people? What’s a topic I’ve done a lot of research on that others might be interested in learning more about? What’s a leadership lesson I learned the hard way that I wish I could have heard a story about earlier?
      Even if someone else has spoken about this topic before, you have a unique perspective you can share - take some time to think of the story only you can tell.

  2. Make it happen by taking one step.
    Once you’re brimming with ideas, it’s time for execution.

    1. Commit to an accountability partner.
      To give myself some moral support and social accountability, I told three coworkers and friends about my goal, and my plan to achieve my goal.
      If you’re looking for another accountability partner, tell me about your goals. Let me know on Twitter @crystalcy or send me a note here.

    2. Choose a consistent habit to commit to.
      I blocked off 30 minutes each week to make progress on my plan: brainstorming lightning talk topics, reaching out to local meetup organizers to pitch my talk topic, outlining the storytelling arc of my lightning talk, developing slides, and more.
      If you want to prioritize developing a skill, set aside specific time for doing so.

  3. Get better - continuously.
    After you’ve given your first talk, find ways to practice continuous improvement for each subsequent talk.

    1. Outline your talk.
      Early on, I’d start creating a slide deck each time I had a talk idea. Over time, I’ve found it more useful to create a lower-fidelity prototype of my talk by first writing the one paragraph description for my talk. If my talk was a movie, this description is the trailer for my talk.
      Need some inspiration? You can see all my talk descriptions here.

    2. Ask for feedback.
      Previously, at conferences or meetups, I would ask organizers for access to their attendee feedback survey. These days, I also design my own feedback surveys as well. I started doing this after some feedback Gibson Biddle shared with me, who does an NPS score survey for each of his talks.
      Each time you present, find a way to get feedback. One easy way to get started is to add your Twitter username and a hashtag for your talk to your slides (note: this will skew towards more positive feedback).

If public speaking is a skill you’re looking to improve, I hope this helps you get started more easily, so that you can create specific strategies that work for you.

I’d love to hear about your journey - let me know on Twitter @crystalcy or send me a note here as you set your goals and make progress on them.

Additional Resources

  1. For presentations to execs: Read The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto, and this article on writing military style emails.

  2. For building confidence in speaking: Take improv classes (I took a few here, but you can find one in your city), or practice lightning talks regularly.

  3. For storytelling: Listen to stories on Storycorps, watch this detailed analysis of Ali Wong's stand-up routine, or watch any talk on (especially Brene Brown).

  4. Interested in booking me to host a public speaking training workshop for your company or in partnership with your meetup group / community organization / conference? I have several workshop formats (one hour, half day, and full day) that I can customize to meet the learning goals of a team or affinity group at your company. Schedule an intro call here to learn more about upcoming availability.

  5. Interested in booking me for one of my talks? Schedule an intro call here to learn more about upcoming availability.

  6. Looking for feedback on an upcoming talk you have? Schedule a one-time 1:1 general coaching session here.

Thanks for reading!

As always, thanks for reading. Share your feedback with me by sending me a note here.

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