I recently paid for an online course called The Art of Focus (unfortunately, it’s no longer open to new students). It’s a series of videos and exercises designed to help increase my capacity for deep, focused work. In the introductory video, one of the topics is about Deliberate Practice. Here’s an excerpt:
In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, studied experts and amateurs in an attempt to discern why they were different. Ericsson came to the stark realization that we can improve performance. What distinguishes the great from the normal is a function of applied effort in the same direction. In his words, to become an expert, requires a “life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” There are two components to this worth noting. The first is “specific domain,” which means we’re applying our effort not to 100 things but one subject.
Think about learning to play the violin. Have you ever watched someone practice an instrument at a high level, or done so yourself? They don’t alternate playing a scale with returning emails. They don’t alternate practicing difficult passages with checking Facebook. They sit and focus, letting their entire mind and body work on the task at hand. That is kind of focus you need to seek, because it’s the only thing that works. The second notable component here is the term “deliberate practice.” If we want to master any cognitively demanding field, it’s not enough to practice. We need to practice deliberately.
…Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance. Deliberate practice isn’t fun. It requires (1) focused attention on a specific skill; (2) immediate feedback; (3) rest. If it’s not something where feedback is obvious and immediate, we often need a coach or mentor to help guide us. In fact, even when feedback is obvious and immediate, a coach can often point out things we can’t see.
I’ve been thinking about the areas, the specific domain, in which I can focus and improve my performance through deliberate practice. There are two that I really think are important.
Deliberate Practice #1: Making Presentations
The first is the skill of making presentations, especially with the use of a Keynote/PowerPoint deck. In my line of work, there are numerous instances where I have to make a presentation and hope that it goes well. Some are with prospective clients evaluating Barrel as a potential agency partner. Some are with existing clients who want to know what we’ve done for them lately or are expecting fresh new ideas. And others are with our internal team either in group communication settings (e.g. the monthly team meeting) or in one-on-one training sessions. It’s not uncommon to have a handful of presentations each week. So, why not deliberately practice and get better?
One thing I’ve been doing to pay focused attention on the skill of making presentations is to read books on the topic. One book that’s been really helpful is Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. It provides step by step guidance on how to put together and present impactful PowerPoint presentations. An immediate takeaway for me was to spend more time developing the structure and headlines of my presentation rather than jumping right into creating each of the slides. Once I began to understand Atkinson’s methodology, it made me cringe at the moments when I stuffed text onto a slide and read them out loud in front of my client or employees.
I think when it comes to getting immediate feedback, making presentations is a great skill to pursue because it’s possible to get usable feedback right away. Without even asking, it’s possible to gauge audience engagement and attention throughout a presentation. With prospective clients and existing clients, I may have to go by on this. With our internal team, however, I can simply ask an employee or one of my partners for their sincere thoughts and get some data on areas I need to improve.
Deliberate Practice #2: Pricing & Closing Deals
I’m almost finished with Pricing Creativity, a book by Blair Enns, which teaches (and preaches) value-based pricing for creative firms. It’s an exciting read for me as it touches upon a lot of the things I experience on a daily basis. I’ve been live texting my partners with excerpts as I come across insights that I think are “must-try” tactics for the business. It’ll take a great deal of effort and learning to master value-based pricing (the concept of pricing not based on our effort/number of hours but charging clients based on the value we add to their business through our work; e.g. if we add $1 million of business to their bottom line, then we should price for at least 20% of that and get compensated $200,000).
The idea of focusing on pricing and closing deals as a skill makes a lot of sense. This includes a few different components: mastering conversations with prospective (and even existing) clients, persistently testing out the value-based pricing approach (not all client engagements/projects will be appropriate for this), and ultimately closing the deal, which may include the submission of a proposal and negotiation of contracts. In other words, I want to deliberately practice the art of sales with pricing as a priority concern.
Each week, I have a handful of conversations that put me in position to practice (Sei-Wook, who handles most of our inbound sales inquires, is in position to practice at least a half dozen times a week). The key will be to put in more preparation work, to consciously note the flow of the conversations, and to put into practice some of the tactics I’ve learned from reading various sources. The feedback will be quite immediate if I’m careful to pick up on the prospect’s responses. I know I’m bound to make some mistakes and lose some opportunities as I push certain conversations towards value-based pricing, but it’s something I’m very keen to try out and learn from.
The other side of making sales a deliberate practice is to carve out time to develop smarter proposals. Pricing Creativity urges firms to create one-page proposals with multiple options. This is something we don’t do regularly, so I’ll have to devote some deep work time to writing out one-page proposals that prospects find acceptable. I actually think such a format, in the long run, will prove quite successful. The challenge is making the time to explore this new format and being persistent about sticking with it even when the first few prospects might reject or give negative feedback about it.
It’s All About Communication
Overall, I’m pretty excited about the idea of focusing on these two areas in the coming months and seeing how far I can take them. Because I am not a performer in the traditional sense–it’s hard to define and measure my contributions and output like you would a basketball player or even an actor–I find that the skill sets I can focus on revolve around my ability to communicate. When it comes to selling, managing employees, making presentations, etc., what I’m doing ultimately boils down to communications. So in order to be the most effective I can be at my job, my deliberate practice opportunities, however I label them, will most likely be tied closely to communications. There are a some other areas I have my eyes on, but for now, let’s start there.