We teach children how to write, but not how to speak. That’s why very few people know how to improve their own speech.
Luckily, I can help you improve your speech.
I learned how to improve mine by accident. As a podcast host, I spend a lot of time listening to my own voice. I listen to critique myself, edit the podcasts or re-listen to old episodes for fun. At first, listening to your own voice is annoying. I’ve experienced that. But after a while, you get used to it.
Improving speech falls into two buckets: (1) what to stop doing, and (2) what to start doing.
Bucket #1: What to Stop Doing
Nassim Taleb has a principle called Via Negativa. The idea is deceptively simple.
Taleb defines Via Negativa like this:
“In life we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add.”
To improve your speech, start by removing bad habits. Cut the “ums,” the “likes” and the “you knows.” If you need to think, pause. Record yourself having a conversation. Inevitably, you’ll find things you don’t like.
Write down your three biggest speech inhibitors. Then, as you have conversations, don’t say those things.
Move onto the second bucket once you’ve broken your worst speech habits.
Bucket #2: What to Start Doing
The first bucket is simple and straightforward: cut out your worst speech habits.
The second bucket falls into the choose-your-own-adventure category. There are many paths you can take. I’ve focused on (1) writing regularly, (2) studying rhetoric and (3) emulating my favorite speakers.
Here’s how I go about each one:
1. Writing Regularly
I write for at least an hour every day. No exceptions.
The inspiration for a daily writing practice came from Fred Wilson, the founder of Union Square Ventures. He’s published a blog post every day for 14 years.¹
In his words:
“Writing regularly makes it so much easier to speak publicly in unscripted situations… Writing forces you to work out your views and articulate them clearly and concisely… Then when you are asked a question related to those views, you have already worked out the answer.”
Writing takes you to a higher level of consciousness. It demands rigor and enhances perception. It transports you through layers of discovery and into unexplored territories of insight. As you do, you journey beyond the limits of ordinary thought.²
As they venture beyond the mundane, writers wash away the tired residue of conventional thought. They map the unexplored, unarticulated and undiscovered territories of consciousness. As they do, they narrow the gap between the infinite nature of reality and our limited ability to make sense of it.
Thus, through a process of osmosis, improvements in writing lead to improvements in speech
2. Study Rhetoric
Memorable sentences follow ancient rhetorical formulas. Once you start learning about rhetoric, you can use it to improve your writing, and once you bring these tricks into your writing, you’ll start speaking with them.³
For an example of rhetoric, re-read the previous sentence. It’s an example of an anadiplosis, my favorite rhetorical trick.
Anadiplosis is when you take the last word of the previous sentence and use it as the first word of the next. It creates the illusion of logic and inevitable progress. In turn, ideas gain strength, structure, and certainty.
Feel the differences between these two sentences:
Sentence #1: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
Sentence #2: “Fear leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to suffering.”
Sentence 1 is stronger and more memorable.
As Malcolm X once said:
“Malcolm X observed that: Once you change your philosophy, you change your thought pattern. Once you change your thought pattern, you change your attitude. Once you change your attitude, it changes your behavior pattern and then you go on into some action.”
Or, consider this line:
“If the soup had been as warm as the wine, and the wine as old as the fish, and the fish as young as the maid, and the maid as willing as the hostess, it would have been a very good meal.”
Use the secrets of rhetoric to improve your writing. Over time, what you learn will translate to your speech.⁴
3. Mirror the Greats
This one is simple. Find the great storytellers, listen to the great orators, and read the great speeches.
Start by going back in time. Watch the Martin Luther King I Have a Dream speech or read Churchill’s We Shall Fight on Beaches. Listen to Armstrong as he stepped foot on the moon. Watch how Obama inspired America in 2008. Examples are everywhere. Kennedy. Robbins. Sinek. Peterson. Ziglar.
Watch the speeches and read the transcripts. As you do, take note of their delivery — the cadence, the rhythm, the undulation, the confidence, and the word choice.
Improving Your Speech
Improving speech is simple. Start with Bucket #1 — what to start doing. Then, move on to Bucket #2 — what to stop doing.
Take advantage of the incredible moment we live in. Through YouTube, you can re-watch history’s greatest speeches, and you can re-read them on the internet — for free. Watch them, read them, and emulate them.
Over time — through a cycle of subtraction and addition — your speech will improve immensely.
Note: If you'd like to receive future posts by email, subscribe to my "Monday Musings" newsletter.
¹ I aspire to a daily publishing cadence.
² A note from a reader: Writing can help in an additional way: by putting something down on paper, I often feel like I'm committing to it more than if I simply think that same thought. And so it forces me to more explicitly test that assumption. It's easier to gloss over flawed logic in my head and accept it unknowingly. But putting something into physical form seems to force a level of rigor, probably because it opens up the opportunity for someone else to see what I've written and contest it. In other words, writing is inherently social / public, and if there is anything our mind hates, it's being proven wrong. And so putting a thought into physical form naturally demands more rigor out of us, and therefore makes us much more able to confidently and eloquently speak about the relevant subject as well. Because we have actually thought through it more rigorously than we would have otherwise.
³ I recommend a book called Elements of Eloquence.
⁴ Each time you come across a new technique, write it down. Next time you’re writing, find a way to use the technique in a sentence. Implementation will accelerate your learning.