Practice Deliberately: 7 Steps for Your Journey to Success

After a presentation, many people come up to me and say something like, “That was great, you are so gifted” or “You are a natural on stage.” While I appreciate the compliment, it does undervalue all the hard work I have put into my craft. I have spent years on continuous improvement, practicing my message, storytelling, and making sure audiences are moved to unleash their potential and make their lives better.


Don't get me wrong, I do want people to feel that I am a "natural" so that my presentation style is not a distraction to the impact my message can have on their life and work. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone is a “naturally gifted” presenter, surgeon, sales person, musician or anything else when you consider the hours of training and practice that is required to be great.

Malcolm Gladwell made popular the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to be great at a particular skill; without a doubt I have spent well over 10,000 hours practicing my presentation skills. Perhaps it is just psychological or promotional, but I prefer to think of this time as Watering My Bamboo – 10,000 hours sounds so arduous. In fact, a client, who I presented to almost 10 years ago, recently re-engaged my services and the feedback they provided reminded me of the importance of deliberate practice. They loved the presentation I gave at their first event, which is why they hired me again, but they were surprised by how much I have improved in those 10 years. Possessing a talent for a particular skill is helpful, but only deliberate practice can make you great.

Success in any field depends more on focus and drive; rely on deliberate practice vs. “natural talent.”

After years of studying and researching successful leaders and peak performers, I have found that they all use “deliberate practice”, a term coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson, whether they know it or not. Deliberate practice is not about performing a skill in the same old way. Instead, it’s working on a skill, or an aspect of a skill, that you don’t quite have yet. Deliberate practice involves pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, getting feedback on your performance, and doing lots of repetitions from a variety of angles until you get it right. Ideally, the skill you work on should be connected to some part of your ultimate goal.

Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent.

Deliberate practice works for any improvable skill, be it listening, communicating, teaching, negotiating, accounting, presenting, managing people, and more. Below are seven steps you can take to start practicing deliberately.

1. Identify the skill you want to improve.

You must have a road map to guide you to your desired destination; be as specific and detailed about your chosen skill as possible.

2. Search for experts in your area.

Interview them and learn as much as you can from them. What have they done to become successful? What qualities do they possess?

3. Practice in your ‘stretch zone’, not your comfort zone.

Deliberate practice often requires you to take on a new perspective—continuing to use a skill the way you have in the past won’t lead you towards your ultimate goal.

4. Design a practice plan.

Find the time in your day when you are most alert to practice.

5. Work with an experienced coach.

Work with an experienced coach who can give support and critical feedback. Great coaching and support can accelerate your growth, and you want feedback now while you are in practice mode, rather than later when it's time to perform,

6. You will plateau.

Your job is to push beyond it, and practice as diligently and specifically as ever.

7. Have faith.

Have faith that incremental improvements will lead to success. It takes many nights of hard work to become an "overnight success."

Successful people are not born, they’re made after years of focused practice and experience.

To find out more about how you can use deliberate practice to reach your maximum potential, read chapter 14, Practice Deliberately, in Water The Bamboo®: Unleashing The Potential Of Teams And Individuals.

This popular blog was originally published in February 2015 and was edited June 2018.