We’re tied to our electronic devices. Writing? Blogging? Emailing? Texting? No problem. But when it comes to oral communications, many of us fall short. We pepper our conversations with “uhs,” “you-knows” and other annoying sounds and filler words. Poor body language, vocal variety and tone distract from our message. We ramble and bury (or omit) the important points we want to make. And we wonder why people don’t “hear” what we’re saying. These shortfalls are magnified when we speak in front of an audience, whether it’s a small group of peers or [yikes] hundreds.
Unless we’re lucky enough to be on the speaker circuit or are a company spokesperson, we usually don’t get many opportunities to practice our public speaking. So how do we become confident and proficient at this vital, yet often-underdeveloped skill? Here’s an idea: join Toastmasters. It’s an international organization with “self-help” groups all over and a curriculum based on years of refining what it takes to be a good speaker (Toastmasters was founded in 1924).
Simply Google “Toastmasters” and you’re sure to find a group near your workplace or home. Most groups meet weekly, so you get frequent opportunities to public-speak, whether that means via prepared, formal or short impromptu speeches. Another bonus: Because members play different roles during meetings, such as “Ah” Counter, Grammarian, Speech Evaluator, Topic Master and Toastmaster, the organization gives you valuable speaking and leadership training that carries over to the workplace.
From my two years in Toastmasters (I wish I had joined years ago), I can attest to its effectiveness. Here are a few nuggets I’d like to share with you:
- Consider your audience: it’s all about what they hear and understand, not what you hear yourself say. You can deliver almost any subject to almost any group, but it’s how you “spin” it that separates a successful speech from one not so well-received. One thing that’s great about many Toastmasters groups is that members hail from many walks of life and cultures. This forces you to modify your subject matter and speech delivery accordingly. It’s also great practice for your business audiences, especially if you’re a marketing person presenting your organization’s PR strategy to a group of operational folks, for instance.
- Style is far more important than the words you use in order to get your messages across. According to a well-known study by Professor Albert Mehrabian, only 7 percent of meaning is in the words that are spoken, while 38 percent is in the way words are said and a whopping 55 percent is in facial expression.
- A little nervousness is helpful; too much is debilitating. Public speaking can be terrifying for many of us. For our first couple of speeches, we’re thankful that we made it through without fainting or coming across like an idiot. But the more often you speak, the more you’re able to concentrate on the finer points of your performance. And a performance it is. Well-known speakers still get nervous, but just enough to keep them on their toes.
- Know your material and practice, practice, practice. Most people start out with speaker notes. Although they’re not a “bad” thing, notes can turn into a crutch that prevents you from connecting with your audience. With practice, you’ll embrace your messages and be able to deliver them with enthusiasm and commitment. I’ve found that even though I have notes (in case I suffer a total brain lapse), I usually never refer to them. Although you’ll deliver your speeches in different ways each time you practice them, without notes you’ll come off as more sincere while establishing better audience rapport.
Keep these tips in mind when you participate in meetings, rub elbows at networking events  and make small-talk at cocktail parties. Every social or professional encounter can be an opportunity to practice. There are many more tips to becoming a successful public speaker, but nothing replaces just getting out there and doing it. And Toastmasters is a low-cost, nurturing and effective venue. You can find out more about Toastmasters at www.toastmasters.org .