Bob’s Bad Week in Las Vegas

Bob came by Sunday to smoke a cigar. I asked him how his week in Las Vegas went.

“I gave two speeches on Thursday,” he said. “The second one, I killed. But the first one – I don’t know. I was off.”

I was surprised to hear Bob confess to an “off” performance. Of all my personal friends and colleagues, he is the best public speaker. In fact, that’s what he gets paid to do. A senior vice president with a large brokerage firm, his job is to travel around the country to local offices and rouse the troops. Judging from his home and lifestyle, he is very highly paid. And I’m sure he is well worth it. When you have a billion-dollar sales business, keeping your salesmen motivated and directed is a critical (i.e., financially valuable) objective.

Bob and I have talked about speechmaking many times. Because I give the occasional talk (and want to be good at it), I’ve appreciated all his suggestions. He’s been a helpful mentor to me on a casual basis, just as Virginia Avery has been helpful in a more formal way.

And until we spoke last Sunday, I had never heard Bob admit to anything but “great” and “killer” presentations.

He told me that he had given a second “mediocre” speech the following day in LA. “There was a band playing in the room next door and the thumping was distracting – to me and to the audience. I managed to get through the presentation without any major glitches. But it didn’t feel the way I like my speeches to feel.”

I could relate. Totally. My history as a public speaker has been very spotty. There have been times when I did indeed feel like I “killed.” And there were other times when, as I left the podium, eyes were averted.

Public Speaking Secret: It is not difficult to know if you’ve given a good speech. If you have, two things will happen: (1) You will get a lot of questions, and (2) you will get a lot of compliments. If you leave the stage thinking you “may” have done a good job, you probably didn’t. If you have to ask colleagues how you did, you didn’t do well – even if they tell you that you were “great.”

Hearing that someone much more skillful than I could have not just one but two “off” performances in the same week made me feel good. Not because I want Bob to be anything but great, but because it reminded me that someone can be great and still put in the occasional “B” performance. Or, to put it another way, that momentary lapses don’t signal permanent mediocrity.

Whatever our level of skill, we can all make improvements. If you want to become a good public speaker, a good marketer, a good salesperson, or a good parent, you can do it so long as you are willing to put in the time it takes to get good.

Getting good at any worthwhile skill, as I’ve explained so many times, takes about 1,000 hours. If you have a mentor or coach to help you, you can cut that time down by about a third – maybe even by half.

Mastering a skill takes much longer – about 5,000 hours if you do it yourself or between 2,500 and 3,500 hours with a coach or mentor.

I want to be good at public speaking. And if I added up all the time I have put into this complex skill, I would guess that I’ve logged about 300 hours. Three hundred hours is much less than the 1,000 hours I should be willing to invest to get good at speaking. And even with a “mentorship discount” (the help I’ve been getting from Virginia and Bob), I still have another 200 hours or so to put in before I can expect to perform well consistently.

As a master of speechmaking, Bob would like all his speeches to be “killer.” When they are not, he is disappointed. But even his “off” speeches are – by any standards – “good.”
Bob’s admission of imperfection makes me admire him more, not less. It helps me understand that what he has accomplished so far – mastering speechmaking – has been achieved through hard work and persistence.

If Bob can become a masterful public speaker by dint of work and tenacity, so can I. And so can you. I’m going to keep on working at it. How about you?

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]