A Public Speaking Lesson in a Pot of Clay

Today’s post was inspired by a story that I heard from my friend and fellow public speaker, Conor Neill. 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.

Get your hands dirty.

By contrast, the students in the second group would be graded strictly on the quality of their work. They only had to produce a single pot, 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 (figuratively and, to some extent, literally). Every class, they were hard at it producing clay pots. Big ones, little ones, all different kinds. They tried different approaches; they experimented; they 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; they searched the Internet; they visited museums to see examples of beautiful pottery and ceramics; they drew sketches.

Well, 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 with the clay.

When the time came for the students to be graded, 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; you can read all the great books that have been written about public speaking; you can 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.
  • My friend 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 Walt Stoneburner

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Analysis of a Speech, TED and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Public Speaking Lesson in a Pot of Clay

  1. Pingback: 6 posts for your public speaking in 2020 - Manner of SpeakingManner of Speaking

  2. Udayan Banerjee says:

    Reblogged this on Technology Trend Analysis and commented:
    In Innovation, if you are debating quality vs quantity – this is interesting read this post

  3. Conor Neill says:

    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.

    • John Zimmer says:

      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.


  4. There’s nothing like being on stage and really touching an audience, especially after a few speeches and discovering that you’ve grown, you’re more entertaining and all the practice with the clay has paid off. Great post, John.

    • John Zimmer says:

      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!


  5. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips and Techniques #87

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  7. Durward Blanks says:

    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.

    • John Zimmer says:

      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.



  8. Public speaking Tips says:

    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!

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