(This story was written by Carmine Gallo and appeared on forbes.com.)
Florida State psychology professor Anders Ericsson, a giant in the field of peak performance, passed away this month.
Malcolm Gladwell brought Ericsson’s research to a larger audience in his book, Outliers. Many of us are familiar with the now famous “10,000-hour rule” of practice time required to become a world-class expert in a particular skill.
In his own book, Peak, Ericsson took a much deeper dive into the subject. His research did show that it takes an enormous amount of practice to stand out—and in some cases, Ericsson said the practice time came closer to 20,000 hours.
But Ericsson was careful to point out that practice alone isn’t enough. “Deliberate” practice is “the most effective and powerful practice that we know of.”
Deliberate practice is practice with a purpose, preferably guided by a coach or teacher.
Ericsson said that anyone, in any field, can shave years off their learning time if they practice the right way. Deliberate practice applies to almost any skill: baking, playing an instrument, learning to swing a golf club, improving sales skills or speaking in public.
There are four steps to deliberate, or “purposeful” practice that I’ve applied to business leaders who want to improve their communication and public-speaking skills.
Step 1. Define specific goals.
Ericsson said setting specific goals is the key to improving at any skill. For example, “Getting better at golf” is a vague ambition. “Shaving five strokes off my handicap” is specific. Making twenty 3-foot putts in a row before I end my practice is even more specific.
In public speaking, establish a specific goal for your practice. For example, today you’re going to get through the first five minutes of your presentation without looking at your notes. And you won’t stop practicing until you nail it.
Step 2. Focus practice time.
The way you organize your practice makes a difference, according to Ericsson.
Schedule your presentation rehearsal with as much commitment as you would put in for an important meeting. If your energy is highest in the morning, set aside uninterrupted time before noon to run through your presentation. Make it a priority.
Step 3. Seek feedback.
When I wrote the first book on how Apple co-founder Steve Jobs delivered presentations, I devoted an entire chapter on his rehearsal strategy. Jobs practiced his iconic product keynote presentations dozens of times, weeks ahead of the launch.
Here’s the key. Jobs always performed in front of a small audience of executives or partners. He delivered a section of the presentation, pause, lower his voice, and ask for specific feedback on every slide and every line.
Step 4. Step out of your comfort zone.
“If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve,” Ericsson wrote.
Most people who say they’re not “good at public speaking” simply don’t do it enough. And they might not put in the hours required to excel at the craft because fear holds them back.
Step out of your comfort zone. It’s okay to start with baby steps. Practice your presentation in front of your dog (Don’t laugh. Bestselling author Tim Ferriss did it). Step it up in the next practice by asking a friend or peer to watch your presentation. Next step, take it to small group, followed by a larger one.
Ericsson said deliberate practice wasn’t always supposed to be enjoyable. If practice doesn’t stretch you and make you uncomfortable, it’s not going to help you improve.
To get better at any skill, repetition alone isn’t the solution. Deliberate, focused practice with feedback is the key to getting from where you are today to where you want to be.