A Public Speaking Lesson in a Pot of Clay

Pot of clay

I recently heard a story from my friend, Conor Neill about a pot of clay. Conor came across the story via Malcolm Gladwell. I am not sure where Gladwell got it, but on with the story …

On the first day of a pottery course, the teacher did something rather peculiar. She divided the students into two groups.

Everyone in the first group, she said, would be graded based on the total weight of the ceramic pots that they produced during the semester. At the end of the course, these students would place their pots on a large scale. The more pots they produced, the more the weight would add up; the heavier the weight, the higher the mark.

By contrast, the grades for the students in the second group depended strictly on the quality of their work. They only had to produce a single pot of clay, but their marks would depend 100% on the aesthetic beauty of their work.

The course began and, as you might expect, the students in the first group dove right in. Every class, they were hard at it producing clay pots. Big ones, little ones, all different kinds. They experimented, tried different approaches and produced all manner of odd-looking pots. And at the end of every class, they were spattered with clay from their efforts.

The students in the second group took a different approach. They wanted their clay pots to be perfect, so they stepped back and thought about the task. They discussed ideas with each other and searched the Internet. The students visited museums to see examples of beautiful pottery and ceramics; they drew sketches.

Time passed and the pots produced by the first group began to pile up in the cupboards and on the countertops and in the corners of the room. But it was only during the final week of the course that the students in the second group sat down and actually began to work on their pot of clay.

When the time came for grading the students, the teacher made a surprising discovery. The best pots, the most beautiful pots, the most intricately designed pots had all been produced by students in the first group. All the while they had been working, cranking out pot after pot to increase their total weight, it turns out they were doing something else as well: They were improving. They were learning from their mistakes They were becoming better potters than the students who had spent so much time studying and planning and theorizing.

The parallels with public speaking are obvious. If you want to become a better public speaker, you have to speak. You can watch all the TED Talks you like; read all the great books about public speaking; follow blogs like this one—but if you never get up on your feet and actually speak in public you are not going to improve.

Here are some ideas as to how you can get practice speaking:

  • Join Toastmasters. You can start giving speeches and receiving feedback immediately.
  • Volunteer to speak at events in your community. Organizers are always looking for people to speak at social events.
  • Seek out opportunities at work to make presentations to colleagues or clients.
  • If you attend a religious service, volunteer to be a reader. Even reading someone else’s material will help you practice projecting your voice, using intonation, pausing, etc.
  • Conor has a great suggestion. Spend three minutes a day for the next ten days speaking into the camera on your computer (or any video camera). Give a short speech or presentation. Then, play it back and watch it carefully. Painful though it may be, watching ourselves on video is a great way to learn how to improve as speakers.

You might have other ideas about how to get “stage time” and I invite you to share them with us in the Comments section below. But whatever your preferred method, be sure you get your hands dirty (so to speak) and don’t just think about it.

Photo courtesy of Swapnil Dwivedi on Unsplash

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  1. There are great tips in your articles. The best one I think is “speaking into the camera on your computer”. Your can correct all errors you make after!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, John.
    Another point to consider. While the second team’s creation may have “perfect” lines, dimensions, angles, etc., it may also be less appealing. Overthinking and constructing a “perfect” speech could be boring and not hold the attention of the audience.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment and the insight, Durward. Much appreciated. I agree with you about the pitfalls of over-thinking a speech, even though we should always prepare thoroughly. As I frequently tell my clients and students, your audiences don’t expect you to be perfect, but they do expect you to be present.

    1. Hi Malachi. Many thanks for stopping by. I am glad that you liked the post and am 100% with you on the thrill that comes when you’ve really connected with an audience.
      Congrats on your recent excellent performance at the Toastmasters Convention in Las Vegas. I believe that you met a very good friend of mine there: Olivia Schofield.
      All the best!

  3. I saw something recently about the age old question: “Why do mountaineers climb mountains?” – in which the answer was actually that the journey is the reason, not the summit. I think it is similar in public speaking, teaching, communicating and inspiring others – it is the journey to get to the stage that makes the speaker’s life more meaningful; puts more clarity in their understanding of the experiences that they are going through. Even more reason to focus on the path, the creating process more than the stage performance, the end point, the goal … the summit.

    1. Great comment, Conor. Thanks. It’s like that song by Miley Cyrus – good grief, am I quoting Miley Cyrus, now?! – “The Climb”.
      Thanks again for bringing the story to my attention.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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