A Black Belt in Public Speaking

Posted On May 21, 2021 |

Spawned by a question in the comments, we'll discuss a few ways we can measure progress as a public speaker. It's not always easy!

Oh great… the very first commenter on my very first blog post is making me work!

Arleen wrote:

 “…often the end product is what is focused on instead of celebrating the endless sweat and effort expended for a long time (years even) to get to that point. It is harder to measure success during the 'training' phase if it isn't with a quantifiable measurement like improved time or muscle mass. I wonder what would be one way to measure one's improvement with public speaking and writing?”

Humans like to measure things. No… humans NEED to measure things. I can only imagine that it is an evolutionary defense mechanism. We need to create mental maps of our environment along with a database of relational facts. In the distant past, we would be able to spot a sabre-toothed tiger and know that he appears to get larger as he gets closer. What’s the nearest safe place to run to, the cave or the campfire?

Presenter should have evolved faster
Typical Tuesday. /sigh

We may not need to escape from huge, killer kitties any longer, but measuring is a part of us. It allows us to make sense of the world and our place in it. Our innate need to quantify is a part of a larger desire for self-awareness. There is a great quote by management guru, Peter Drucker. He said, “If you can't measure it, you can't improve it”. Arleen alluded to this in her comment. For example; the sprinter tries to beat his personal best time, or the body builder records her growing biceps. Many different martial arts use a system of coloured belts to denote levels of knowledge and ability. You usually start as a white belt and progress to the coveted black belt. Knowing where you stand, it becomes easier to see where you want to go. It becomes challenging when we examine a soft-skill like public speaking. Challenging… but not impossible. Let’s take a look a few methods.


This is more for measuring a single event, but in our FREE ebook, The Essential Presentation Master Plan, we explore in detail the idea of measuring success by outcomes. To achieve a successful outcome, we start by knowing our audience; what is it they need, what information can we give them, what techniques can we use that will help them change their behavior?  For example, with surveys or contact cards it is possible to follow up with attendees/students/audience members after the engagement to see if the information was helpful. It can also provide necessary feedback to help shape future sessions.


If you are a member of the Better Presenter Academy, you know that we will always sing the praises of the Toastmasters program. It is an easy, fun way to learn about public speaking and get stage-time in a safe, relaxed atmosphere.

Toastmasters has an online component now
Pathways is the Toastmasters Online Program

When I first joined, I was issued a manual that contained a series of 10 chapters or projects that I would complete at my own pace. Each project taught a new aspect of public speaking. It started with an icebreaker in which you simply have to stand up in front of an audience and talk about yourself for four to six minutes. The following projects introduced ideas of composition, vocal variety, and body language etc. After the 10th project you achieved the level of “competent communicator”. Other levels and projects of increasing difficulty followed until you achieved the highest designation of “Distinguished Toastmaster” (or DTM). I always explain to people that the DTM is like getting your “black belt in public speaking”. Where this example fails is that each level measures an increase in knowledge but not necessarily an increase in ability. By the time you have achieved DTM status you will have completed at least 40 speeches. It's safe to say that after 40 projects you will be a better speaker than when you completed your icebreaker. The only actual “measurement” you could have is the subjective opinion of a fellow member who has seen your progress.


I like this simple, clear, and I believe accurate, breakdown from Martin Crew, Director of Barnardo's Scotland. The post is entitled, “Public Speaking - How Do You Measure Up?” (From https://www.acosvo.org.uk/blog/public-speaking-how-do-you-measure)

Level 1: Read speech from prepared notes; success is reaching the end without being sick on stage.

Level 2: Look up occasionally from prepared notes; success is reaching the end with some of the audience still awake.

Level 3: Present a speech from notes with occasional ad libs; success is a polite round of applause at the end.

Level 4: Deliver a speech using only a prompt sheet; success is eye contact with the audience and questions at the end.

Level 5: Perform centre stage with no notes: success is energy and excitement, your own and your audience. 

 The best advice I can give regarding quantifying your ability as a public speaker is to rarely give it thought. Ask yourself one simple question, “Am I better than I was yesterday?” If not, what step can I take to improve. Leaps do not have to be exponential. One step forward is enough.

Categories: General Presentations, Goals, communication skills, improvement