There is a bit of wisdom that sticks with me from childhood, from Ecclesiastes 4:12, that says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Even if you don’t do a lot of manual labor (I certainly don’t), you still know that a typical rope isn’t just a bunch of threads. It consists of fibers twisted into yarn, yarn twisted into strands, and strands twisted into lays. A typical rope consists of three lays.
That metaphor serves well in thinking about improving effective speaking. It takes competence in three areas woven together: effective delivery, effective organization for the ear, and effective content.
Most people have a natural strength in at least one of those areas, but unless the other two areas score at least at the level of competence, they can completely negate the strength area. However, you can drive yourself crazy striving simultaneously for excellence in all three.
If you are a writer, for instance, chances are you have a strong sense of content. You might need some work in the area of organization for the ear (which differs from organizing for reading), and you will almost certainly need some work on delivery.
On the other hand, if you have a natural talent for B.S. (blowing smoke), you may find you can dazzle an audience, but their follow-through is lacking because once your brilliance blows over there is very little substance (content) there.
In general, then, follow this pattern for growth:
- Identify your strengths. Record yourself and get feedback from friends and colleagues who will tell you the truth–but tell them at this stage that you are seeking to identify strengths. You don’t want them telling you that you are good when you are not, but you do want them to tell you what is good.
- Identify your “areas of growth.” Again, record yourself. Join Toastmasters for some informed feedback at this point. They won’t beat you up, but tell them you are looking for the areas where you can improve. Put about a third of your effort into building your strength, and two-thirds into bringing your growth areas up to par.
- Once you reach competence in all three, boost your strength. This is where your greatest impact on an audience will live, as long as the other areas don’t interfere. However, continue to spend time and energy on all three. The ratio now shifts, though. Spend about two-thirds of your effort on your strength area, and one-third on the others.
Over the years I’ve worked with students and clients, I have seen this to be the fastest path to improvement without driving yourself nuts in the process (for some of us, of course, it’s a very short trip).