Public speaking still atop most business people’s nightmare list
Richard Baila had not prepared a word when the Washington Association of Realtors named him Realtor of the Year at their 2001 awards ceremony.
In front of a vast audience, Baila, an associate broker for RE/MAX Whatcom County, almost choked.
“I was nervous and parched and it was real hard to speak,” he said. “I just gagged.”
After the incident, Baila resolved to join Bellingham Evening Toastmasters, a local club devoted to improving members’ public speaking skills. Now Baila speaks in front of audiences two or three times a month at office meetings, Realtor association meetings and government meetings. With four years of practice in a supportive environment, Baila is now fully prepared and able to accept any surprise award that comes his way, as well as give a few succinct and powerful speeches here and there, without feeling panicked at all.
For business people, giving a speech or presentation is as integral to the job as negotiating deals, developing marketing strategies or dealing with personnel matters, but it remains one of most people’s greatest fears, according to mentalhelp.net.
At the very least, everyone can use a few tips and strategies to make the most out of their public face time.
Lia Ayley, Bellingham Evening Toastmasters president and former psychotherapist who is now a stay-at-home mom, said the best way to improve public speaking skills is to practice, practice, practice.
An optimum goal would be to give one speech or presentation a month, and to practice it as much as possible in advance to become more fluent and confident giving it, Ayley said.
Also, practice at least once in the manner you will ultimately give the speech. For example, consider if you’ll be standing up, in front of a podium or behind one, what clothes you’ll be wearing and if you’ll need any props, Ayley said.
Practicing with any type of prop or visual aid, including flip charts or Power Point presentations, is important for fluidity and timing of the speech. It is especially important to remember to reference the props while still focusing on the audience, which can be tricky to master, Ayley said.
If you will be using a script, practice with it, Ayley said. Make sure the font is large and only use the top two-thirds of the page so you aren’t constantly looking down.
Consider who the audience is: Think about demographics such as race, sex, profession, age, political ideology and religious associations in order to better pitch your points and connect with the audience, Ayley said.
Ayley also recommends timing the speech every time you practice it, and making sure you don’t say more than you need to.
“You always want to ask yourself: What can I leave out, how can I be more concise and clear?” she said.
Baila said utilizing his speaking time is one of the most important lessons he’s learned at Toastmasters.
“You want to make your points and be done with it instead of blathering on and on,” he said. Audience members usually do not have a lot of time and will be more receptive to your points if they are clear and concise, he said.
Getting feedback on your speech is the next key element of improving public speaking skills, Ayley said.
Toastmasters meetings are the best way to do this because they are organized and members provide helpful feedback, she said.
But even friends and family can provide constructive feedback, especially if you give them guidelines to evaluate specific aspects of your speech.
Videotaping yourself giving the speech can also be effective, even though it can sometimes be really excruciating, Ayley said. Doing this can make you aware of any nervous habits you have, such as fiddling with hair or fidgeting with your hands, that distract from the speech.
Feeling secure in your knowledge and comfort about your speech’s topic is another vital factor in improving public speaking skills. Knowing your topic inside and out will let you relax and you’ll come across as more confident, Ayley said.
Also prepare to feel physically, in addition to mentally, secure. Use what Ayley calls the “power position” — feet planted with hands at your sides — and avoid clasping hands in front or behind you. Using this stance will make you appear more confident and competent.
Even when nervous, avoid the inclination to drink alcohol before a speech. Ayley recalled a convention she attended where the keynote speaker appeared to have had too much too drink.
“It was really embarrassing,” she said.
Drinking milk beforehand is also not a good idea as it can muddle your vocal chords, as well as coffee, which can constrict your throat muscles, she said. Water is the best thing to drink beforehand, and if the speech is long, having a glass or bottle of water with you is a good idea.
Ayley stressed that while employing all these tactics on your own may help, she said joining a group like Toastmasters is the best way to improve your public speaking skills because of its structure and proven results.
Step up to the mic
At each 90-minute meeting, three members give prepared speeches they previously signed up for, and three other members evaluate those speeches.
At a recent Tuesday evening Toastmasters, members and guests ranged from shaky-voiced newcomers to articulate, self-assured raconteurs. The speeches ranged from wedding toasts to motivational and “moral-of-the-story” speeches.
No matter what their skill level, the 17 people present — a wide range of ages, professions and genders — seemed to enjoy the meeting’s balance of humor, fun and practice. Although highly structured, the meeting’s atmosphere is relaxed and supportive.
“Everyone has something valuable to contribute,” Baila said.
Members can participate as much or as little as they want, from simply showing up to giving an impromptu one-minute speech during the “table-topics” exercise, to signing up for and giving a more formal seven-to-eight-minute speech to be evaluated by the peer group.
Positions held within the club include the typical president, vice president and other official roles, as well as a “grammarian” who evaluates language used during the meeting and an “ah” counter, who — yes, just like it sounds — counts the number of times speakers say “ah” or “um” during speeches.
For all of these reasons, Baila said, without Toastmasters he wouldn’t be able to give speeches in front of the city or county councils about local issues he feels passionate about, in addition to the improved impact it has had on his job.
“It’s a part of our democracy,” he said. “People need to be able to stand up in public.