Deliberate Practice, Not Natural Talent, Makes the Difference

Not long ago, after finishing a presentation, someone said I was a natural when it came to public speaking. I took it as a compliment because that’s how it was intended. However, after thanking her I said, “It’s not natural talent. I work really hard at this.” It’s often the case that the better you get at something the easier it looks to others.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell took Dr. Anders Ericsson work and popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice can make almost anyone an expert. Ericsson would dispute the 10,000 hours as some sort of magic number but does believe in deliberate practice as a way to expertise. Deliberate practice would be foreign to most people. It’s not simply playing a lot of golf or piano. It’s not giving a lot of presentations or even having performed a lot of surgeries. Each of those will help you improve up to a point but could lead to diminished performance thereafter.

According to Ericsson, deliberate practice entails the following:

  1. Your practice must have purpose.
  2. Your practice needs to be focused.
  3. You need timely feedback.
  4. You’ll have to get out of your comfort zone.

You may not want to become an expert or maybe you cannot devote 10,000 hours to an activity. That’s okay because you can still become really, really good by following Ericsson’s system of deliberate practice.

I’ve seen this play out in my career. I’ve been studying and teaching the science influence for more than 15 years. Over that time, I’ve taught essentially the same concepts for thousands of hours. You might think that could get boring and you’d be right if I did it exactly the same way every time. But I don’t.

I work really hard on perfecting my skill as a presenter/teacher. That work entails continuing to expand my knowledge base. I read, watch and listen to keep learning and I engage in deliberate practice as outlined by Ericsson.


Any time I have a big presentation coming up I practice. It’s not uncommon to put 30-40 hours of prep time in for a one hour keynote even though I’ve given a variation of the talk hundreds of times before. If people are going to give me an hour of their time and if an event coordinator is staking his or her reputation on hiring me in then I feel obligated to give everyone an experience they won’t forget.

Not simply focusing on what I want to say, but consciously thinking about the attendees and event coordinator has made a noticeable difference. Simon Sinek would say it’s the “why” makes all the difference.


Each time I get ready to present I pick at least one thing to do a little differently. That keeps things fresh for me and leads to a better experience for those in the audience.

I have my talks “chunked” so I can specifically work on sections and subsections. I don’t memorize anything but I know exactly what I want to convey and then work on doing that most effectively. That may be incorporating a different slide that drives home a point, creating a new takeaway item, changing colors or working on some other aspect of the overall presentation.


This summer I gave a short presentation in Columbus, my hometown, and invited several people who knew me. These were people who had seen me present many times over the years. I asked each for specific feedback on certain aspects of the presentation.

Afterwards I followed up with each person to discuss their feedback. When I saw themes (same feedback from multiple people) or got some interesting ideas to try I made sure to incorporate them into my next presentations. I also let each person know what I did with their feedback. Knowing I actually used their input will make them more likely to help me in the future. A win for each of us!

Comfort zone

I used to be very uncomfortable moving into a crowd. But I knew it would make for a better experience after watching my friend Anthony Tormey, President/CEO of Leader Development Institute, and other great speakers naturally do that.

To stretch myself, many years ago I started doing improv comedy with Jane. That removed any and all inhibitions! Now I visualize myself playfully interacting with audiences as I practice. When I present I make it a point to move into an audience as much as possible and take note of how people respond.


What do you want to get better at? How much time and effort are you willing to invest? Begin to engage deliberate practice and you will be amazed at the difference can make. Pick up a copy of Ericsson’s book Peak and remember, it’s about:

  1. Purpose
  2. Focus
  3. Feedback
  4. Comfort zone

Brian Ahearn

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, author, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s book – Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical – has been one of the top 10 selling Amazon books in several insurance categories and cracked the top 50 in sales & selling.

His LinkedIn Learning courses have been viewed by more than 75,000 people around the world! His latest course – Advanced Persuasive Selling: Persuading Different Personalities – is now online.

Luck is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity

Like so many people, a coach had a huge impact on my life. For me that person was Todd Alles, the head football coach at Dublin during my high school years. Among the many things he said that stuck with me was this – “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”

Whether or not we want to admit it, much of success has to do with luck. One definition for luck is, “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.”

It’s the chance part that’s outside your control. For example; being born into your family, growing up where you did, the opportunities (sports, music and other activities) afforded you, and so much more had very little or nothing at all to do with your choices or skills.

Sometimes it’s randomly meeting a person who gives you a big break. Maybe it’s being fortunate to have a teacher or coach who took special interest in you and changed your life.

Chance has impacted me in numerous ways over the years. I’d like to share with you a couple of random events changed my life forever.

On a personal level luck…

led to my marriage. Having accepted a job before graduation college, I still decided to go to one last interview. The Travelers, a national insurance company, was looking for an underwriter and I only went to the interview because the job was in Columbus, Ohio, my hometown. My family and friends were in Columbus as was a girl I was dating so I thought it would be nice if I could stay in town. I got the job and on my first day I walked into the HR on boarding session and laid eyes on Jane, the woman who would become my wife.

On a professional level luck…

changed the course of my career. While at State Auto Insurance a good friend, Nancy Edwards, gave a video to me and my boss. She thought it would hit home with us because of our sales training. The video was Robert Cialdini presenting research on ethical influence at Stanford’s Breakfast Briefings. What he shared resonated with me on many levels so I began using Cialdini’s concepts in my sales training.

Even more random was an email I sent to Stanford sometime later when their marketing referred to Cialdini’s training as manipulation. I never heard from Stanford but that email led to a phone call from a representative at INFLUENCE AT WORK. She called to thank me on behalf of Dr. Cialdini for pointing out Stanford’s mistake. Because of my email Stanford changed their marketing of the video and it led to a relationship with INFLUENCE AT WORK that’s now spanned more than 15 years. Were it not for that email it’s very likely I would not have pursued the career path I’m on and you certainly would not be reading my blog right now.

Where was the preparation?

In both cases opportunities presented themselves and I was prepared to seize them. When it came to the job interview, if I had not worked hard in school, gotten good grades and interviewed extensively, it’s very likely I would not have gotten the job…and never met Jane. Travelers is a fine company and I’m sure many college grads would have loved the opportunity to work for them but I was the one who was prepared.

With regard to my career, I could have easily disregarded the Stanford marketing piece that mentioned manipulation but I didn’t because being an ethical person is a core value for me. I felt compelled to address the situation and was articulate enough to bring about change. Again, I was prepared for the opportunity that presented itself.


Sometimes unfortunate opportunities come your way, things that are completely outside of your control that pose a threat or have a negative impact. Even in those cases the question is; are you ready to deal with the situation in a way that lessens the bad outcome or perhaps turns it into something positive?

When it comes to good luck there’s no room for boasting. But there is room for confidence that says, “I’m ready whenever the opportunity presents itself.” There’s a well-known saying on this that’s sometimes attributed to Arnold Palmer, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Make sure you’re prepared for the opportunities that might come your way someday.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, the most cited living social psychologist on the topic of ethical influence. Brian’s LinkedIn Learning courses Persuasive SellingPersuasive Coaching and Building a Coaching Culture: Improving Performance through Timely Feedback have been viewed by nearly 65,000 people! Have you watched them yet? Click a course title to see what you’ve been missing.