This is a question I’m asked a lot and people tend to be surprised by my response. For a start, there is no blithely definitive answer such as 10,000 hours; it’s not as straightforward as that. While it’s true that the more experienced you are, the easier you’ll find it to prepare and deliver a successful talk, that is by no means the whole story. There are two distinct phases to the process of getting good at public speaking. The first takes far less time than most people imagine and the second takes rather more.
The first phase is to learn the practical techniques and psychological strategies that underpin any successful speech or presentation. This means: get some coaching! Learning public speaking through trial and error is at best slow and inconsistent, at worst traumatic. The right coaching, on the other hand, is not only effective but efficient. The vast majority of my clients reach a liberating breakthrough in one or two sessions – that’s a maximum of three hours.
The second phase involves preparing a specific speech or presentation. This is the part that people usually underestimate, which is why I always recommend that you start working on your talk as soon as you’ve agreed to do it. If it’s ready with days – or even weeks – to spare, that’s great; you can put it in a drawer until nearer the day. But you don’t know how long you’re going to need to create and rehearse it, so don’t sabotage your success by not allowing enough time to prepare.
This second phase consists of two sub-phases: creating your talk and rehearsing it. You first need to work out what you want to say and how you want to say it. Then, when you’re happy with it, you need to rehearse it until you no longer have to think about finding the words. Depending on the length of your talk, it can be several weeks’ work to beat the content into the right shape. Then you may need to rehearse it 30 or more times until the moment comes when you know you’ve nailed it.
If the stakes are high, you have somehow got to make sure you go through the full cycle of this process, however long it takes. The rewards are so well worth the time and effort.
For low-stakes talks, this is where experience supports you. If you haven’t got time to prepare thoroughly, or don’t feel the occasion warrants the effort, using the practical techniques and psychological strategies, you can still deliver a good-enough presentation. The more often you’ve done this, the better it will be.
However, by putting in the time and effort to complete the process, even a beginner can deliver a talk that will wow the audience.
To return to the original question, how long does it take to get good at public speaking?, the answer is you can learn the techniques in a few hours. If what you’re really asking is how long it may take you to prepare a good speech or presentation, we’re into how-long-is-a-piece-of-string territory. To avoid the stress of having only enough to tie a tiny, insecure knot with it, my advice is to allow time and space for a large ball of twine.