Improve your public speaking in 2012

So here we are in mid January and what’s happened to your New Year’s resolutions? If one of them was to improve your public speaking and presentation skills, have you started yet?

Here are 6 tips to get you going:

1.  They key word is “improve”. Whatever your skill level now, you can get better. Even the great speakers we know today and from history, such as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King, had to start somewhere. Margaret Thatcher famously spent many hours developing, with a coach, her speaking voice to enhance her appeal to the public. Churchill spent hours rehearsing those well-known speeches in front of a mirror, over and over again. Whatever improvement you make is progress . If it is standing in front of an audience that you fear most, then that is where to start – building confidence. If you do presentations at work but think they are ‘boring’, then you may need to work on the structure  of the speech or the vocal variety in your voice. Whatever level you are at, forget absolute targets like “I want to speak like Obama” and restate your target as an improvement from where you are now.

2. Get advice. Public speaking is a topic – it can be learnt. Centuries ago, when speech was the main form of communication, it was taught as a study subject and known as  “rhetoric” – the art of being able to construct spoken words and sentences to make an impact.   There are books, experts and clubs out there that will help you decide which aspect of your public speaking is good and what can be improved.

3. Join a Toastmasters Club. If you are reading this, you are probably already aware that there is a Toastmasters affiliated club in Maidenhead that meets every two weeks. Active members get to speak at almost every club meeting – that’s a LOT of practise.  Why else join a Toastmasters club  ? Well for a start, the ‘secrets’ of becoming a confident public speaker are distilled down into 10 projects that you work on as part of your membership. Learn how to make an impact, learn how to inspire an audience,  learn how to add variety to your voice and use body gestures confidently. And, of course, meet other like-minded people who are there for the same reason you are.

4. Watch, listen and learn from the best. The speeches of the famous can be found on YouTube and other internet sites. You can buy or download audio of the best speeches in the world. Notice the good speakers on TV and Radio.  Notice the way the sentences they speak are constructed, how they use pauses, and the rate at which they speak. Good speaking is all around you if you take the time to listen. It’s probably best to focus on one aspect of a speech when listening to  it to learn. For example, in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, notice how the pauses in the speech are in a very different place to where you would see commas and full stops  on the written page. Pauses and change of pace are used for dramatic effect.

5. Practise, practise, practise. Unfortunately you cannot improve your speaking skills by reading and watching only – although that helps. You need to practise and this is where finding opportunities to do so is important. The good news in my experience is that most people DON’T want to speak in public. So when there is a need for some announcement to be given , a reading to be made, a meeting to be chaired, or a presentation to give to a network group,  if you volunteer you will more often that not get chosen! Choose to speak and learn from the experience – most audiences are a lot more forgiving than you think. And who knows where it might lead..members at our Toastmasters club have offered to give after dinner speeches to ‘fill a gap’.. and gone on to make money from speaking.

6. Finally, if you are going to speak soon, take some tips from project 2 in the Toastmasters Competent Communicator manual. Organise your speech. It should have a strong opening, a well structured middle and an impactful end. For the opening steer away from the obvious “Hello..” and “My name is…”. Plenty of time to say that later – whilst you have the audience’s full attention say something that will grab them and make them want to listen to the rest of your speech. For the middle section, the key thing is to make sure that what you are saying links to the argument or point you are putting across and that the way you present them makes it easy to follow where you are. Lastly, at the end, leave with an impact : re-state the point or points you want to make, highlight the conclusion, or ask a rhetorical question.

You too can be a better speaker in 2012. It takes a little bit of courage, some planning and commitment, but, who knows, one day we could be learning from your speeches on YouTube.

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