The Power of Marginal Gains in Communication Performance

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Whether you’re an aspiring TED speaker or a leader climbing toward the C-Suite, you recognize that your communication skills will play a huge role in getting you to the top. But when it comes to developing those skills, there are so many factors to focus on and, usually, so much room for improvement, that the goal of communicating on the level of a best-in-class speaker seems utterly unattainable.

But what we’ve learned is that, no matter what level you’re starting at, whether you’re a complete beginner or you’re already a competent communicator, it’s not necessary or helpful to set your sights on 100 percent right away. When we convince ourselves that success requires immediate transformation—or even perfection—we’re far more likely to become discouraged and throw in the towel.

If, instead, we focus on step-by-step improvement, we can achieve lasting, meaningful gains that set us on our way to achieving our overarching goals.

James Clear recently told a story of the British Cycling team, which had performed fairly abysmally for nearly 100 years. They were so mediocre that the idea of making it to the top seemed impossible. But when Dave Brailsford was hired in 2003 to turn the team around, he didn’t focus on getting to the top right away. Instead, he focused on making small, steady improvements that would compound into huge progress.

“What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as ‘the aggregation of marginal gains,’ which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, ‘The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.’”

They started with small adjustments: redesigning the bike seats, adjusting the grips on the tires, asking outdoor riders to switch to indoor racing suits for better aerodynamics, and other “1 percent improvements” in every area. And as these tiny improvements accumulated, the results were astounding. In 2008, the team that had won just one gold medal and seen no Tour de France victories earned 60 percent of the gold medals for cycling at the 2008 Olympics and produced the first British Tour de France winner.

This story demonstrates the power of marginal gains: the idea that, rather than striving for huge, immediate improvements or looking for that one transformational moment, we can achieve more meaningful progress by making small, steady improvements over time. And this doesn’t just apply to athletics. It applies to anything we’re trying to accomplish—including becoming a world-class communicator.

Marginal Gains in Communication

Like so many disciplines, communication has dozens of different facets that interact with one another to affect a speaker’s overall impact. Here at Quantified, we measure about fifty of them, encompassing message content, delivery skills, and overall audience perception. And it’s fascinating to see the ways they play off one another. Some are obvious: a speaker who comes off as confident also tends to appear credible, and one who is engaging is likely to be memorable as well. But some are surprising. Storytelling and authenticity seem to go hand in hand, for example, as do strong eye contact and a sense of personalization.

All this is to say that making a change in one area is likely to lead to changes in others, as well. So when it comes time to work on communication skills, there’s no need to aim for perfection in every area all at once.

Let’s say your last presentation was a flop, and you know you have a lot to improve. Rather than trying to fix everything right away, search for the quick wins and small victories that will take you further than you think.

If your biggest problem is your nerves (nearly 30 percent of Americans report that they’re “afraid or very afraid” of public speaking), your first step will be to build up your confidence. And breaking this first goal down into small, manageable steps will be much more effective than simply trying to “be more confident.” Here are some of the marginal gains you might make:

    1. Identify your biggest “crutch word,” and start removing it from your vocabulary. When you lose the disfluencies and replace them with clear, concrete language, your message content will sound much more assured.
    2. Develop a posture that makes you look and feel as though you’re in control on stage. If you tend to shuffle, practice planting your feet. If you hunch over, stand up straight. 
    3. Learn some vocal warmups to ensure your voice sounds full and clear when you speak. A confident voice indicates a confident speaker.

These steps may not seem like much, but once you’ve incorporated these small fixes, you’ll find you’re improving in other areas as well. When you appear confident, your audience will also see you as more credible, trustworthy, and engaging—all right off the bat. And soon, you’ll be able to tackle your next development opportunity one step at a time.

When we set goals for ourselves, in communication or anything else, it’s tempting to shoot for the moon right away. But by focusing on small, measurable steps and marginal gains, we’ll almost always find we make stronger, more efficient, and more lasting progress toward our ultimate targets.