Ah – Er – Um

Members and guests had a real treat during Table Topics at Maidenhead Speakers on Monday 12th April.  We’d already had five excellent speakers on the timely topic of Spring, some people had already filled out their voting slips, when the TM suggested we do ‘a couple more..’.

Step forward Norman Rhodes, DTM, to take on the subject “Poems or Songs of Spring”.

He opened quite, well,  conventionally, with a few lines from a well know nursery rhyme: “Spring is sprung..de grasse is riz…”. Then he paused, shuffled his papers,  thought for a bit longer and decided on impulse (well we assumed it was!) to retrieve something from his seat. He returned to the lectern and announced he had an original poem to read to us.

“I was on a coach with a party travelling up to Loughborough for a guided tour of the John Taylor Bell Foundry the day following my speech evaluations and the words of the 1st three verses just fell into place.   The last verse took a little longer to get right”.

We were blown away. We never see the results of the voting of course, but I’m pretty sure Norman won Best Table Topics by miles.

Some people asked for a copy, so here is it is in full:

Ah  –  Er  –  Um

by Norman Rhodes, DTM

Those dreaded words kept creeping in.
At first I didn’t even know!
But as my count was always high

I realised it must be so.

After a while I found I heard
Those dreaded words when ‘ere I spake,
Which soon with careful concentration
I managed to eradicate.

My progress made was clear to me
When my evaluator said one night
Nothing about my Um’s or Er’s:

Just said I had a ‘pauses’ blight.

Then in a flash it came to me,
The reason why I had such pauses:
In taking out those Um’s and Er’s
Their unfilled gaps were now the causes!


Fantastic! Well done Norman and we look forward to the next verses.

Maybe this should be required reading by the Grammarian at the start of every meeting…

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.

Speaking with Powerpoint

How many times have you heard people criticise your Powerpoint presentation skills?

Too many words per slide“, “the slides detracted from your presence“, “too many slides“,  “you looked at the laptop and lost eye contact” and so on.

So here’s an excellent example of HOW to do it from Pranav Mistry speaking at TEDIndia.

Notice in this presentation , among other things:

  • Words on slides, yes, but only to emphasize the spoken word
  • Mix of pictures and video – most laptops perfectly capable of this now
  • Speech and slides synchronised

OK, so this is a big event and he probably had an army of IT and communication experts helping him put this together.

Still , food for thought when you are next using Powerpoint.

For some excellent advice on putting together your next Powerpoint presentation , try Andrew Abela’s Extreme Presentation Method.

(Incidentally Andrew  happens to be an old school friend of mine, who I lost contact with when he emigrated and then made contact with again via a random coincidence in a bar in London – how it happened will be a topic for a speech one day!)


Using Gadgets – when in doubt…reach for a G&T!

Toastmaster Mireia Fontbernat offers some tips for making better use of G&T

No, it’s not the drink you should reach out for before an important speech. It stands for “Gadgets and Toastmasters”.

Technology is everywhere. And, all too often, we think that it has nothing to do with us and speaking. Many a presenter has been known to use gadgets as a distraction.

Propping it up

Granted, we need to get the basics right: we need to be able to provide a structure talk, with interesting content for the specific audience, and with the appropriate delivery techniques, such as body language, voice variation… Then we can include props.

Props must add value to our speech; they should act as prompts for us, reminders for the audience and support the structure of the presentation.

The next stage is technology. Gadgets are very tempting – from PowerPoint® to video, from bullet points to animations with sound – we should be able to enhance our presentations with these.

When all else fails
In addition to enhancing speeches, technology has another characteristic: it fails. Badly.

You should at least prepare three different speeches when you use gadgets or technology: one version with all technical aspects working fine, a second one for technology failing – at any point – mid-way (you may even have your own joke about it, but do not imply you cannot do the presentation without it), and a third one for those unfortunately not-so-rare cases when technology refuses to work before you even go on stage.

It is additional work, but if you have been through the experience just once, you will agree it is well worth the extra effort.

And unless it is very obvious, you don’t even need to tell your audience that your speech was intended to be different!

The sky’s the limit

There are enough guidelines and books about how to use technology in speeches, and we all need to find our own way to use them.

But – how about extending our reach? Why should we limit ourselves to using gadgets in our club speeches?

You can visit and participate in other clubs’ meetings, but you can also use technology to reach out to new audiences, try new media and enjoy the process.

Out of the comfort zone
Some technologies may feel very threatening already in the club atmosphere. It may be asking a bit too much to try these in the wild.

Here are the reasons why you should try:
1- You are experimenting with new areas, therefore learning
2- You can always remove things / keep them private
3- Ask your mentor if s/he would like to review this extra-curricular speeches

Take the G&T challenge
Don’t run for the drinks cabinet just yet… Take this little test first:

Which areas do you find most challenging? (Look at your past feedback slips)
a) Content and structure
b) Body language
c) Voice variation

Depending what you answered, pick a challenge from the list below to stretch yourself.
a) Content and structure

  • Try using Tony Buzan’s incredible Mind-mapping software. You can download trial software for free.
  • Blogging and more BloggingWhy not try writing an article about your next speech and blogging it on the MSC website.
  • Take some PowerPoint® courses,then prepare a Powerpoint presentation for your next speech.

b) Body language

c) Voice variation

  • Start phlogging (i.e. phone blogging)
  • Create your own podcast (you don’t have to post it on the web!) – get your kit.

Good luck and don’t forget to reward yourself if the technology works. If the gadget fails, you can always have a real G&T anyway!

Full disclosure: The author has been commercially or financially involved with some of the companies and services mentioned above (namely, Microsoft and Qik).