My first real job involved occasional public speaking, and looking back I’d have to assess my performance as “uneven.”
Sometimes I was relaxed and confident, other times, quite nervous. Sometimes I connected with the audience, other times, I didn’t even come close.
I was frustrated because I wanted to be a good speaker all the time, not just from time to time. But I’d never had training in public speaking. Until the day—many, many years later—that I got up my nerve and walked into a Toastmasters meeting.
There I was warmly welcomed and sat back to enjoy the proceedings. I went back the next week and the week after and then I joined. That was over 9 years and 70 some speeches ago.
As I expected, I became a better public speaker. An unexpected bonus, however, was the other invaluable skills which you learn in Toastmasters.
1. How to write for the ear
Writing a speech is different from writing a report or an article. A speech is more informal, more conversational: You need to write for the ear rather than for the eye. Writing speeches has taught me how to do that. And as an unexpected bonus, it has improved all my writing.
2. How to prepare different types of speeches for different occasions
In Toastmasters, you learn to write and present not just a speech but many types of speeches, such as informative, persuasive, and entertaining. This involves selecting a topic that fits, doing research in some cases, writing and re-writing, putting together any props or visual aids, and then practicing it over and over.
Some examples of titles and types of speeches I’ve given are:
- How to Do the Heimlich Maneuver, A Demonstration Speech (using a human prop)
- Multi-tasking Madness, A Humorous Speech (which was actually on a serious topic but had a humorous opening and conclusion), and
- Travels through Time and Space, An After-dinner Speech (about my love of reading)
3. How to use personal stories in a good way
There’s nothing more effective in enhancing your own credibility and connecting with an audience than using personal stories. People love these stories and learn from them.
In my professional career in technical, regulatory fields, there wasn’t much opportunity for personal storytelling. But in TM I’ve learned to incorporate stories from my personal experience.
I’ve also learned that using personal stories is delicate. And here’s why:
- Talking about a terrible personal experience which happened recently—such as a death in the family—is not a good idea. I’ve seen speakers break down while doing this because they’re still processing the event. It’s much too early to speak about it to a roomful of people.
- Giving TMI (too much information) makes people in the audience squirmy and uncomfortable, and
- Talking about family members in a way which threatens their privacy or trust is not right. I use a lot of stories which include family members, and I’m conscious of the need to be respectful.
My youngest child has provided some great speech material over the years, and I have often talked about her. I’ve also talked about my first date with my BF who’s a member of my current TM club. (It was an unusual and wonderful date, but I would never use that story in a speech if it made him even a little bit uncomfortable.)
4. How to conduct enjoyable meetings that end on time
Each meeting has a designated TM who does much of the behind-the-scenes preparation, such as
- contacting the speakers and others,
- preparing an agenda,
- selecting a theme for the meeting, such as School Daze or Singing in the Rain (hey, it’s Seattle),
- making entertaining remarks related to the theme to get things warmed up,
- introducing the speakers, and
- keeping the meeting running smoothly.
And that’s when everything goes well. Being the TM also requires coming up with a Plan B when things don’t go so well, such as when traffic is even slower than usual and the first two speakers are stuck on an interstate highway somewhere.
5. How to give supportive evaluations to help other speakers improve
At TM meetings, every speaker gets an evaluation. The evaluator talks about what the speaker did well and suggests ways to make the speech even better. When I evaluate a speaker, I usually try to figure out the one or two things which would help him make the biggest improvement in the shortest amount of time.
An unexpected bonus in learning to give evaluations has been the ability to evaluate others and help them to improve outside of TM. For example, I’ve used my skills to help friends prepare for a job interview. We role-play the interview, and I evaluate my friend’s responses: What she did well and suggestions for improvement in the real interview.
6. How to benefit from evaluations without getting defensive
At first I found it a bit unnerving to be evaluated at a TM meeting, but the take-away message is always supportive: you did some things very well, and here are some things you could do to make your speech even better.
The model for learning to be a good public speaker is the same as the model for learning just about anything. You try it, get some feedback, try it again using the feedback you got last time, get some more feedback, and so on. And it works!
7. How to answer a question you didn’t expect when you don’t have time to think
Most TM meetings have a section called Table Topics where a designated Topic Master asks a question and calls on a member to answer. The question could be anything:
What’s the worse job you ever had? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why? What’s your favorite movie and why do you like it so much?
The member stands up—and with virtually no time to think—gives as coherent an answer as he can. Doing this every week builds skill in impromptu speaking which is is a huge help in those real-world situations where a co-worker or your boss suddenly turns to you in a meeting and says, “So, Arnold, what do you think about this?”
If you want to learn these invaluable skills; meet interesting, intelligent, and very supportive people; and have a huge amount of fun in the process, I highly recommend Toastmasters.