Public Speaking Tips
Public Speaking is the Absolute Worst. Terrifying. Nerve-wracking. Vomit-inducing, even.
In fact, in middle school, I had developed a fear of public speaking leaving me trembling and sweating at the thought of it. In English class, an assignment called for memorizing a poem and reciting in front of the class. My photographic memory made it easy memorizing Edgar Allan Poe's "To One in Paradise," but as soon as I was in front of the class... and that video camera, my mind was blank... frozen for what felt like an eternity... with my blood boiling, sweat flowing like a river through every crevice of my skin, and my stomach churning like a propeller, the teacher got my attention to start. Rattled, I rambled off a few words, got stuck... and lost... my... lunch. Then, I found it on my shoes. I lost dessert as I ran out the door. After that I avoided public speaking throughout my academic career, leaving me with zero formal or informal training with public speaking when I started my professional career.
I managed well enough in my entry level positions, but when I started work as a government contractor as a young electrical engineer, I quickly learned that communication and leadership skills are integral to get ahead in any career, which includes having to sell ideas, designs, and results through technical presentations or non-technical briefings. My supervisor recommended on my annual review that I join Toastmasters to learn these skills. Toastmasters is a self-paced, learn-by-doing communication and leadership improvement program where groups of members (clubs) have meetings to practice public speaking. It sounded horrible, but it was just what I needed.
My supervisor had to practically drag me to meetings until I joined, thereby committing myself to pursuing something I had always dreaded. I had to confront my petrifying fear of public speaking. Giving my first speech in front of the club, I was nervous with my hands shaking the page of notes which I read from without looking up. But, I didn’t die! And, actually felt good about what I had accomplished!
Over time, I gained valuable experience speaking in front of the club, improving my skills each time while becoming more confident in myself reducing my fear to just butterflies. The butterflies will never go away, because any challenge will come with nervousness. Instead, with practice and experience, I learned how to get my butterflies to fly in formation. Eventually, I came to a point where I actually started to enjoy public speaking. Who knew!
I’d like to share some of the basic speaking tips that I’ve learned from Toastmasters:
Rehearse until you’re confident – it’s the best way to ensure you leave your audience with a good impression.
Organization will help the audience follow your speech — use a basic structure with an opening to establish your objective, then main points organized in a logical or chronological structure, and finally a summary and conclusion for your audience to take away.
Use visual aids to help the audience understand and remember your points. Distinct and appealing ideas will engage your audience. Do not clutter a PowerPoint slide with too much information or irrelevant information.
Always start with a strong opening, such as a fascinating story, amusing joke, significant quote, ponderous question, or jolting statistic.
Speak to audience conversationally. Using an outline with bulleted notes versus writing out every word will encourage a fluid narrative.
Invest yourself in the topic, or speak about something your invested in – a passionate speech from the heart will draw the audience’s attention. *This tip will come up often on this site*
Know your audience. Assess how your audience will react to the points you convey, and if necessary, mold your words accordingly to prevent any disengagement from the audience.
Know your physical setting. Plan your movement to take advantage of the stage, lighting, and props. Note tripping hazards, bad lighting, or awkward footing to avoid.
Lastly and most importantly, take every opportunity to speak – Public speaking is a muscle that gets stronger the more it is used. Mistakes will come, especially in the beginning, but time and experience will hone your skills.
I really can’t press enough how important that last bullet is. Whether career, hobby, volunteer, or family event, with every speech I’ve given I’ve found my skill and confidence grow. I owe the growth to Toastmasters, as it gave me opportunity to practice in a safe, consequence-free environment with a group of people to give me positive and helpful feedback to keep working at it and improve.
After delivering 50+ speeches over 5+ years of membership in Toastmasters and through many leadership experiences, I earned the highest award available to a member: Distinguished Toastmaster. Even after that achievement, I know there’s plenty of room to grow, and so I continue to attend Toastmasters meetings to keep practicing and polishing my skills while trying out new techniques. I took up mentoring and coaching my fellow Toastmasters to share what I have learned. Now, I am taking those skills and lessons outside of Toastmasters with this site and blog.
If you’re interested in more information regarding Toastmasters, you can check out www.toastmasters.org