Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Secret to go from Worst to Best: Deliberate Practice

Would you like to know the secret that can propel you from being one of the worst speakers to being one of the best? Andrew Ng, a professor at Stanford University and a founding member of Coursera shares his insight on how he accomplished this exact feat. After understanding the mechanics of how to create and deliver a great talk, what we really have to do is the hard work of practice. The Pareto principle (80/20 rule) tells us that we can get an 80% improvement in our speaking skills, but we need to put in the 20% of work in the form of practice. Focused practice with very good feedback is how we can improve much faster. This is why we have a preview and review cycle in our sabha and our syllabus is focused on this cycle and the concept of SUS. This in a nutshell is what deliberate practice is all about. Here is what Prof. Ng has to say about it.
How can you rapidly improve your presentation skills? When I began teaching at Stanford University in 2002, I was one of the weakest teachers--bottom 13% according to my student reviews. Eleven years later, in 2013, students named me one of the top 10 professors across all of Stanford University. During that journey, there was one short period when my teaching and public speaking rapidly improved, through a process called deliberate practice.

We all know that to get better at a musical instrument or a sport, you have to practice. Practice does not simply mean “doing the activity over and over.” Instead, you learn fastest when you engage in a focused process called deliberate practice, in which you repeatedly attempt an especially challenging part of the task.
When the best musicians are working to improve, they don’t just play their favorite tunes for hours. Instead, they pick a short but challenging passage in a larger musical piece, and repeatedly play that passage until they get it right. Athletes use a similar process to hone their skills. This is hard work---you focus in every attempt, try to figure out what you’re doing wrong, and tweak your performance to make it better. If you do it right, you might be mentally drained after 30 minutes.
Deliberate practice is common in music and in sports, but is rarely used in the context of speaking or teaching. In fact, knowledge workers in most disciplines rarely engage in deliberate practice. This limits how rapidly we get better at our jobs; it also means that deliberate practice might help you progress faster than your peers.
Key elements of deliberate practice include:

  • Rapid iteration.
  • Immediate feedback.
  • Focus on a small part of the task that can be done in a short time.
Here’s a 30 minute deliberate practice exercise for improving your presentations:
  1. Select a ~60 second portion of a presentation that you made recently, or that you plan to make.
  2. Record yourself making that 60 second presentation. Use a webcam, camcorder, or your cellphone video camera to capture video and audio.
  3. Watch your presentation. If you haven’t seen yourself on video much, you’ll be appalled at how you look or sound. This is a good sign; it means that your speaking ability is about to improve dramatically.
  4. Decide what you’d like to adjust about your presentation. Then go back to Step 2, try again, making any changes you think will improve your speaking.
  5. Repeat the cycle of recording, watching, and adjusting 8 - 10 times.
You want to select only a ~60 second portion of your presentation to practice. By using only 60 second segments, you can go through the steps above maybe 8-10 times in half an hour (i.e., you can perform many iterations in a short time). The first time I did this, I recorded myself talking for 30 minutes. But you don’t really want to watch a 30 minute video of yourself talking—it gets boring—and in a 30 minute video, you’ll also find far too many things to change that you won’t be able to keep them straight in your mind.
This was the process I used to improved my teaching. For about a year, I had a camcorder set up in my living room, and I went through the record-watch-adjust cycle whenever I had a few moments to spare. Although I still have much to learn, a series of many practice sessions helped me to improve my teaching more quickly than anything else I’ve done, and ultimately allowed me to develop and launch my first MOOC in 2011. In the later parts of my teaching career, when I was learning how to create MOOC-style online lecture videos, the process of deliberate practice helped me get much better at that too.

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