Have you ever felt nervous talking in front of a group of people? Does the thought of going on to a stage or into a room full of people make you anxious? There are so many life situations that call for us to have courage and speak our thoughts in front of people and the fear of what people will think often deters us from taking the opportunity to speak or leaves us feeling panicky when we do have to speak.
For some people, public speaking comes naturally. But for others, like me, it can be nerve-wracking. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that we should do at least one scary thing every day. For me, public speaking would be at the top of my list of “scary things”.
So how does one go about gaining more confidence in public speaking? I have read many good books and articles on public speaking and how to positively influence other people. However, by far the most effective tool that has improved my level of confidence and made me a better speaker is actually talking in front of a group of people in a formal setting on a regular basis. I have done this through a fantastic public speaking club called ‘Toastmasters‘.
This is a club that I stumbled upon in my local newspaper and so I decided to join because I was curious about it and because my work as a research scientist often called for me to speak in front of a group of people in one form or another. Toastmasters is an international organization that was started in 1924 and there are thousands of clubs worldwide. Chances are there is a club not far from where you are.
There is so much to say about the benefits of this club but here are my top picks from my experiences in the club:
- Speech writing: you get to write and present a speech every week on whatever topic you choose with a particular goal such as focusing on eye contact, gestures (are you moving your hands to compliment what you are talking about or are you as motionless as a big rock?), body language (are you pacing distractedly, is your face expressive or dead-pan?), vocal variety (are you varying the tone of your voice, are you loud enough?), the art of persuasion etc.
- Table topics: this is my favorite part of the club meeting where you are asked a question (usually something that requires your opinion) and you have to answer it on the spot in 2 minutes. This gets you thinking on your feet and is great practice for interview questions, impromptu toasts at events or other situations where you have to come up with an answer or a solution quickly.
- Evaluations: the club meeting would not be complete without an assessment of how you are doing. Every time you speak, you receive an evaluation from a fellow club member on what you did well and what you can improve. Perhaps you did not realize that you clasp your hands when you speak or that you talk too softly to be clearly understood. These are all things that will be brought to your attention and that you can work on. You will also have a chance to evaluate your fellow club members, giving you yet another opportunity to practice speaking.
- Leadership: every meeting, you get to choose a different role to facilitate the meeting, for example, you could be the ‘table topics master’ where you get to put people on the spot with funny or thought provoking questions. Just coming up with the questions is a good exercise in research and critical thinking. You could be the ‘general evaluator’ who summarizes how the whole meeting went while making suggestions for improvement. You could be the ‘grammarian’ who (ironically) is responsible for spotting any dubious grammar or pointing out crutch words such as ‘um’ or ‘aaah’ thus improving the quality of the club members’ speech. You can also take up more permanent club positions like President, Treasurer or Secretary giving you the opportunity to practice your leadership skills and boost your confidence!
- Competitions: you have the opportunity to practice your speaking in front of bigger audiences at different levels (area, district, division, world championships etc.). There are some fun contests like the “humor contest” if you are the kind of personality that likes to make people laugh!
- Camaraderie: you will forge great friendships with club members who you see every week. You will encourage each other to keep going, keep practicing and to improve your skills as a speaker!
So, if you would like to improve your public speaking, the best way is to actually SPEAK! If there is no public speaking club near you, why not form one of your own with a group of friends?