It’s deliberate practice, not talent or genes, that really determines who becomes a great communicator
We often swap book recommendations with our clients. One recent example of this was the CEO of a US-based consulting firm, who recommended ‘Talent Is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin, first published in 2008. Mr. Colvin’s main job has been as a senior editor at large for Fortune magazine, in the USA. He has also done a stint as a daily business commentor for the CBS radio network.
It is a book about our subtitle above, but was recommended by this CEO to us with the comment “that’s what you do!”, meaning the approach we take to coaching our clients to become more effective and persuasive communicators using Deliberate Practice.
We hope Mr. Colvin will forgive us for not knowing the term ‘Deliberate Practice’ before hearing about the book. Reading through, it’s clear that he does indeed describe our approach, and cites many examples of how individuals have practiced in a particular way in order to become world-class performers, distinct and separate from everybody else. He’s sure it’s not genes or culture or money.
So, what is ‘Deliberate Practice (DB)’? The definitions in the book are brief and a little vague, but Colvin starts by explaining that it is not one activity, but a large concept1 that few people or businesses deploy, and which applies over a wide range of areas of excellence, from ballet dancing to medical diagnosis, to insurance sales.
By implication it applies to presenting well and to tennis too, which neatly reminds me to mention Emma Raducanu, the UK’s latest tennis sensation. Virtually unheard of before Wimbledon 2021, she is now world famous for winning 12 matches in a row, going from the qualifying rounds to the final without losing a single set, to claim the US Open on 11th Sept. No-one has ever done that before, at any age. Amazing.
Much has been written about Emma Raducanu, but we’ve been paying attention to articles and broadcasts covering her highly focused training regime over the past 10 years (she’s only 18 now).
It’s very clear from this that she has an extra eye for detail, breaks down the components of playing shots, understands her equipment well, and developing skills at the molecular level. She then practices those skills with perfection as the goal. She has also sought the advice of experts and listened to, then explored, what they said. That is Deliberate Practice. It very much reminds us of Sir David Brailsford’s Marginal Gains in cycling.
The book’s definitions continues to explain that DB is important, hard, and constrained not physically but mentally. One clear description is ‘required concentration so intense that it is exhausting’… and ‘not inherently enjoyable’2. We often have 1-1 client sessions where the client says something like ‘wow that was so tiring, I had no idea that speaking could involve so much work!’ Maybe Colvin’s term is so obvious that it needs no explanation. We differ. And enough of a recital from a book! How do we at GPB think this concept applies to becoming so good a presenter that you are excellent at it?
To us, Deliberate Practice starts by breaking down the act of communicating, presenting, giving a speech, media interview or doing a pitch, into its main components, then breaking those down again, and working on deliberate skill development in each sub-component. And yes, it turns out that it is hard, and so it requires a high level of motivation. Motivation is built on Purpose, and although Colvin thinks it’s not inherently enjoyable, we differ here as there are ways to practice that make it enjoyable whilst doing the hard graft work. Or maybe we’re just masochists.
To us, the main components of spoken communication are:
- The content, meaning the narrative supported by any visual aids shown
- The voice used to deliver that content, and
- The visual, or non-verbal, aspects.
We further break these three down into their sub-components:
The content category includes key messages, evidence and arguments, differentiation, structure and sequence, language style and word selection, visuals (not just PPt but including mental imagery and physical objects), the level of complexity. This category is the only one for written communication, an area where we also coach using Deliberate Practice
The voice category includes: various aspects of pitch, pacing and pausing, fluency, volume, and articulation. We have at least 9 main elements here.
The visual category includes facial expression and its variety and congruence, eye contact patterns and gaze aversion, posture, movement, and gestures (6 types of these).
We have built coaching practicals in all sub-categories, and we tailor them to each client’s needs so that we get the most skills development in the shortest time. Our unique set of Scientific Analyses of each of the three component parts helps greatly to measure and thus identify what someone’s speaking and writing assets are, and what the main areas for development are.
Here are some examples or GPB’s Deliberate Practice exercises:
- The ‘Fire Bell Test’ for deriving key messages
- ‘F.B.I.’ to uncover more powerful differences and arguments in support of a case
- ‘Just a Minute’ to develop fluency
- Pitch pattern exercise to develop modulation and range
- Gesture practicals where we apply congruent gestures to set scripts.
We are sure that you’ll have seen Deliberate Practice in your various fields of work. The remaining factor is the degree of willingness or motivation to develop. For our clients, this is generally good, as they are driven to become excellent. Wherever it starts, the good news is that motivation is not hard-coded, it can develop, and we’re pleased to say that this is the case for many of our clients, who have become lifelong ‘students of communication’.
By the GPB Team
- Colvin, G. (2010). Talent is Overrated. Page 7.
- Colvin, G. (2010). Talent is Overrated. Page 8.