Ways to learn from other speakers

I don’t remember where I was when I saw this Scroll Bird. But I do remember it reminding me of lovely speakers, all in a tangle with their talks. I don’t think this is surprising! Just because we might speak in different ways every day does not mean that we should just know how to create a talk. Anymore than we would just know how to write a book because we can write. It’s a process. And we can all improve. Here I’m going to share one way that I think gets overlooked.

Have you ever heard writers share the advice that if you want to improve as a writer, you also need to read?

Stephen King puts it like this:

‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

And I like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s analogy:

“Read, read, read. I’m not sure that one can be a good writer without being a good reader. If you’re going to build a desk it’s very good to see what other carpenters have done.”  

From my experience as a speaker coach, I’d say the equivalent is also true for speakers.

If you want to improve as a speaker, there is so much to be gained from watching talks as a way of deepening your understanding of how different elements are functioning.

Three things to consider if you want to get the most out of watching other speakers:

  • Watch through the lens of curiosity, not comparison. I say this as someone who has worked with hundreds of speakers, behind the scenes. It’s possible to learn from everyone, while valuing our own strengths; but not if we descend into a confidence wrecking spiral of ‘that speaker is brilliant, and I suck.’ It is a process of investigation.
  • You might need to watch the talk twice – once to soak in the content, and once to step back and analyse what worked. Or what didn’t. And why?
  • Watch widely – different speakers, subjects, conferences, formats. And don’t let the length of a talk put you off. You could watch a TED talk that will be 18 minutes or less. But you could also watch 10 minutes of a longer talk and use that as your focus.

Ways to structure this practice

Lots of the speakers I coach find it easier to learn from a talk if they bring some structure to how they’re watching. You could try one of these:

1) Pose a question

Start with a specific question in mind. For eg

How is this speaker using ‘story’ in their talk?

How is this speaker structuring their talk?

What do I notice about the speaker’s delivery? What do I like about it? Is there anything that is distracting, or could work better?

You can start with whatever aspect of public speaking interests you, or is a priority for your own development as a speaker.

2) Pick a section

Depending on what aspect of public speaking you want to investigate, it can be helpful to set a small, doable challenge, that will still give you food for thought.

For example, you could:

Watch the first 5 minutes of 3 different talks. How is the speaker choosing to start? Is it effective? Does it hook you in?


Skip to the last 3 minutes of a talk. (But before any Q and A starts). How is the speaker using this time? It’s important. It’s the final note for the audience. Make a note of anything that weakens this note, or that makes it resonate.

3) Watch and listen. Then read the transcript if it’s available.

For this one, I would suggest picking a talk that intrigues you; a talk that you really enjoyed watching  and want to break down, to see how it works.

You will need to check online to see if a transcript is available, and have it to hand. (TED.com offer transcripts for their talks, and in multiple languages.)  

You then get to use the transcript to zoom in on and answer your own questions about what the speaker is doing.

For example, you could track one element that has interested or impressed you. It could be…

How ‘story’ is functioning in the talk. (Where it is placed, length, etc)


How the talk is structured. (What makes it clear, or cohesive?)

Happy watching. Stay curious. And apply your findings to building your own talks.