The first five stages of speaker development

I don’t remember where I heard this story – it might not even be true – but I love the message:

A young scientist was in charge of looking after a famous expert coming to speak at a conference. The scientist’s duties were to pick the expert up at the airport, and then introduce her at the conference. The responsibility of introducing the expert almost overwhelmed the young scientist. He sweated over writing the introduction for days and woke up at nights worrying about it.

When the scientist picked up the expert from the airport, she asked if they could stop for a quick cup of coffee. As they sat down, she casually asked the scientist to remind her of the title of her speech. Shocked he told her.  As she drank her coffee, she pulled out an envelope from her bag and scribbled a few notes. When she’d finished the young scientist took her to the venue, stumbled through his carefully scripted introduction and then watched her give a brilliant talk.

The message of this story is NOT that winging it is a winning strategy. Rather the message is that after many years of hard work and experience (Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours) you can make it look easy.

How can you get from being the young scientist to the expert? There are stages of development that most of us seem to go through. I can recognize five stages that I’ve gone through and that most of the people I coach go through. I can generally identify the stage that a speaker is at by what they’re most concerned about, so I’ve noted this as I describe each stage.

Stage 1: It’s all about the words

When I started out in Toastmasters, I wrote everything out word for word. I would go through copious revisions, generating mountains of paper as I laboriously fine-tuned what I wanted to say. In my early speeches I had a full script in front of me as I spoke. Then I tried memorizing what I wanted to say – all I achieved was transferring the script to inside my head – with the attendant risk of a total mind freeze.

At this stage of my speaking, I didn’t care about connecting with the audience. My aim was simply to get through my presentation still standing.

The people that I coach that are at this level are most concerned about remembering everything they want to say and getting it exactly right.

Stage 2: I can talk

Once I got to Stage 2, I realized there was more to speaking than just getting through a sequence of words. I started to trust myself to work from notes – rather than a complete script. I noticed that there was an audience out there – though I still didn’t know what to do about them.

People at this stage tend to be concerned about being clear and understandable, and having their presentations “flow”.

Fast-track hints to Stage 2

  1. Join Toastmasters. Though it’s not perfect, Toastmasters is the organization for getting lots of hours under your belt. And for many people, more experience is what helps to develop that trust in yourself.
  2. Realize that a presentation or speech is about sharing ideas, not sentences.

Resource posts:

How to get the most out of Toastmasters
There’s no such thing as the perfect presentation
How to stop waffling once and for all
Why your presentation shouldn’t flow
How to prevent and recover from mind blanks

Stage 3: Hello audience

I was getting good at the Toastmaster style of speaking – but that wasn’t helping me connect with my audience. It was a comment from my partner, Tony Burns, that helped me see the light. When I first experimented talking to people – individual people in my audience – I felt like I was giving a speech for the first time.

I made sure I knew my content well, and then my focus was on expressing those ideas and thoughts to the people in front of me.

At stage 3, the major concern of people I coach is to be interesting and engaging.

Fast-track hints to Stage 3

  1. Talk outside of Toastmasters. Toastmasters can have you stuck inside a certain “Toastmaster mode” of speaking which isn’t conducive to connection with your audience.
  2. Give the same presentation many times. If you’re giving a new presentation, you’re likely to be inside your own head, rather than reaching out to the audience.
  3. Choose to take questions throughout your presentation rather than making people wait till the end.
  4. Get a skilled coach who can point you the way towards connection.
  5. Watch yourself on video.

Resource posts:

What to look for in a presentation skills trainer
8 tips for encouraging questions in your presentation
How to survive watching yourself on video
7 ways to keep audience attention during your presentation
8 states of mind that will make you a more compelling presenter

Stage 3A: Spontaneity (side-track)

OK, I didn’t go through this stage, but I’ve noticed it in other people. This is where you realize that you can talk and connect with an audience without having planned a great deal. Chris Brogan describes it like this:

I’ve worked strictly in the moment, like an improv actor or an artist or a cook. I take all the raw pieces of my conversations and work them into pieces of information on the fly and in real time.

I enjoy it. My audience doesn’t seem to like it as much. They come away appreciative of my passion but no more ready to take action.

I appreciate Chris’s honesty. It’s an ego-boost to be able to improvise in front of an audience – but it’s not an effective way to pass on your message.

How to get out of this side-track

If you feel this approach is working for you, get feedback from an unbiased professional to check you’re right.

Stage 4: It’s all about the audience

This is the stage where you realize it’s not about you, it’s about the audience. I love Nancy Duarte’s way of expressing this: “your audience is the hero”. This is the stage where I would put myself now.

The difference between stage 3 and stage 4 is this: in stage 3 you want the audience to be interested and engaged – because it makes you feel good! In Stage 4, you subsume your needs to those of the audience. You’re willing to take risks and make a fool of yourself.

Fast-track hints to Stage 4

  1. Experiment with making a fool of yourself.
  2. Take an improv class.
  3. Ask questions of your audience and incorporate audience participation into your presentations.

Resource posts:

What makes a good public speaker
Three ideas from improv to develop your speaking
The 10 steps to asking questions so you get an answer every time
Why most attempts at audience participation fail and what to do about it
Six Secrets from a Professional Speaker on Audience Participation

Stage 5: Storytelling Mastery

This is what I’m working on now. Sure, I can tell stories and I can make people laugh, but I know that I’ve got a way to go to master this skill. In April, I’m attending Doug Stevenson’s Storytelling Retreat. For two and a half days, along with three other people, I’ll be coached intensively by Doug on on developing and delivering one story.

Stages 6,7 and 8

I’ll let you know when I get there.

I’d love you to share the stages of development you’ve gone through as a speaker, where you’re at now, and what are some of the things that have made the most difference to your development.

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  1. Excellent post. I informally coach presenters every day as part of my job. I recognize these stages and this will help me know how to work effectively with each presenter as an individual.

    • Thanks Christine, yes, it’s a useful model when you’re working with other people. It gives you guidance as to how far to stretch them.

  2. You’re totally right about your comments about me. It’s not very effective, what I do. I’ve come to realize that *I* really enjoy it, and that I connect with people, but I don’t CONVEY ENOUGH EDUCATION. I help, but I don’t educate. And there’s no point me flying all over the place being charming if people don’t also come away feeling like their head’s a lot fuller.
    The REST of the post was great, too. : )

    • Hi Chris

      I don’t agree that what you do isn’t effective. I saw you present at SXSW last year with Julien Smith and that was effective and appeared (mostly) planned.

      I haven’t seen you do an ‘improv’ presentation – so my comments were based on your own honest self-evaluation on your blog. I really appreciate your honesty because too many people stop developing their skills as a speaker once they’ve mastered the “wing -it” presentation. And that’s sad because they could be so much better.

      I’d also say that with the amount of speaking that you do, you’re close the position of the expert in the story that I tell at the beginning of this post. You’ve probably done Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.


    • Hi Richard
      Thanks for sharing where you’re at. Doing longer educational sessions at Toastmasters is a great way of making the most of Toastmasters and getting out of the routine of doing a 7 minute speech.

      I enjoyed your post. I’m familiar with the competence/consciousness matrix. I wonder whether speaking is an exception? I don’t come across many people who have no experience of public speaking AND think it’s easy. Most of them think it’s hard and scary and they avoid it as much as they can.

  3. I’m wondering in Stage 4 you discuss Audience. There is a growing trend to view webinars on mobile phones. Should you as a presenter adjust your presentation to accommodate this type of audience?

    I think viewing a webinar on a mobile phone is a waste of time….and I even wrote an article about it “Don’t View Webinars on your Mobile Phone”

  4. I appreciate your focusing attention on the need to connect with the audience. This skill seems to come naturally to some, but for those who lack that natural skill, even an excellent presentation can fall flat. In my opinion, this is a critical skill that is often missed.

  5. What are stages 6-8? I need to know what I am striving for.


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