Guest Post by Danielle Krage, professional speaker coach.
Have you ever heard writers share the advice that if you want to improve as a writer, you also need to read?
Stephen King puts it like this:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
And I like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s analogy:
“Read, read, read. I’m not sure that one can be a good writer without being a good reader. If you’re going to build a desk it’s very good to see what other carpenters have done.”
From my experience as a speaker coach, I’d say the equivalent is also true for speakers.
If you want to improve as a speaker, there is so much to be gained from watching talks as a way of deepening your understanding of how different elements are functioning.
3 considerations to get the most out of watching other speakers
- Watch through the lens of curiosity, not comparison. I say this as someone who has worked with hundreds of speakers, behind the scenes. It’s possible to learn from everyone while valuing our own strengths; but not if we descend into a confidence wrecking spiral of ‘that speaker is brilliant, and I suck.’ It is a process of investigation.
- You might need to watch the talk twice – once to soak in the content, and once to step back and analyse what worked. Or what didn’t. And why?
- Watch widely – different speakers, subjects, conferences, formats. And don’t let the length of a talk put you off. You could watch a TED talk that will be 18 minutes or less. But you could also watch 10 minutes of a longer talk and use that as your focus.
If you want a place to start, with a great variety of speakers, it would be worth checking out this list. I compiled it as part of a speaker coaching project for Automattic. It contains links to 32 talks, from 28 different speakers – as selected by Automatticians.
I watched all of these talks in a marathon viewing, over the course of a weekend. You do not have to do that! But I can report that by the end I felt pretty awed by our potential as humans to show up and share our ideas, knowledge, and experiences – with immense creativity and generosity.
Ways to structure this practice
Lots of the speakers I coach find it easier to learn from a talk if they bring some structure to how they’re watching. You could try one of these:
Pose a question
Start with a specific question in mind. For example, as part of the Automattic speaker coaching project, I focused on the following key elements: story; structure; and delivery. This could translate to…
How is this speaker using ‘story’ in their talk?
How is this speaker structuring their talk?
What do I notice about the speaker’s delivery? What do I like about it? Is there anything that is distracting, or could work better?
I shared my findings from 16 different talks here. You can start with whatever aspect of public speaking interests you, or is a priority for your own development as a speaker. Identify the element. Shape that interest into a question. And then explore what answers you find in one or more talks.
Pick a section
Depending on what aspect of public speaking you want to investigate, it can be helpful to set a small, doable challenge, that will still give you food for thought.
For example, you could:
Watch the first 5 minutes of 3 different talks. How is the speaker choosing to start? Is it effective? Does it hook you in?
Skip to the last 3 minutes of a talk. (But before any Q and A starts). How is the speaker using time? It’s important. It’s the final note for the audience. Make a note of anything that weakens this note, or that makes it resonate.
Watch and listen, then read
For this one, I would suggest picking a talk that intrigues you; a talk that you really enjoyed watching and want to break down, to see how it works.
You will need to check online to see if a transcript is available, and have it on hand. (TED.com offer transcripts for their talks, and in multiple languages.)
You are then going to deconstruct the talk, in multiple stages. The following is one approach:
- Watch and listen once and simply note down what catches your attention – anything that you think is interesting or good. These notes just need to act as a reminder to yourself – a log of places to go back to and investigate. So it could be:engaging beginning – thesis story
monkey slide graph
audience laughing – slow motion bit
definition / question for audience
- Scan through the transcript, and divide it into sections, for your own ease and focus. You could:
Divide a TED talk into four sections – each of which will be less than 5 minutes stage time
Look for natural places to divide it, that make sense to you. You might section off: opening; close; three more breaks, at transition points.
- For each of your initial notes, dig deeper into the transcript, taking it a section at a time at first. The transcript is great for giving you line-level detail – for example, how a story is constructed, or how a transition is phrased.
- Having worked through your notes, in sections, zoom your focus back out to examine the big picture patterns in the talk. You could:Explore the frequency and duration of different elements. Where are they placed and why? How do they connect? For example, you could now track the use of ‘story’ throughout the whole talk, to see how it is functioning.
- Finally, it can be really fun and illuminating to go back and watch the talk one more time. This re-introduces the all-important aspect of human delivery and can consolidate your understanding, ready to apply to your own talks.
This doesn’t have to be a solo sport, share talks with your team
As a speaker coach, when I’m working with teams, I’ve repeatedly seen the benefits of collating a list of their favourite talks. These talks act as shared reference points. They move us out of talking in the abstract, and into a landscape where we can build a common vocabulary, through examples.
There are plenty of ways to do this informally, and that can work really well for distributed teams. You could:
Take it in turns to create and share a 2 minute video, or a short blog post, highlighting 3 strengths of a selected talk.
Get creative with the premise of ‘book clubs’ and discuss a selected talk, as a group, through your chosen communication channels.
My own practice as a speaker coach
For all the experience that I’ve had as a speaker and coach, I still consider watching talks an integral part of my own practice and development. Yes, I watch hundreds of talks every year in my work with individual clients and conferences. But I also watch talks intentionally to investigate and learn.
For example, for 2019 I have set a clear focus on watching more talks that are not delivered in English, for multiple reasons. Not only am I learning from each of these speakers, but I am building a bigger library of reference points to use when influencing conference design; we all stand to gain from re-thinking how ‘language’ is approached in these settings.
Here I share the strengths of a delightful a talk in Spanish, by Jorge Drexler. And as an unexpected bonus, I got to learn about a musical form that I didn’t know existed.
Time well spent.
So happy watching. Stay curious. And apply your findings to building your own talks.