Speaking in public with confidence and communicating your ideas effectively is a valuable skill, no matter what you do, who you are or your background. It can also be a fear which stops us from following our dreams.
Three inspiring stories from a Twickenham based public speaking club, Riverside Communicators (part of the non-profit organisation Toastmasters International), shows how you too can move from presentation terror to public speaking confidence.
I used to stay silent at work team meetings because I feared my comments would come across as dumb. I avoided social gatherings if there was a possibility I might have to say a few words. I didn’t apply for promotions or new jobs if the test included a presentation.
Ten years ago, I joined Riverside Communicators, something which has completely changed my life. I now look for opportunities to speak in public; I regularly speak to audiences of up to 200 people; I have won multiple public speaking awards; I mentor and coach others who want to gain confidence and communicate with impact.
My top three learnings from being a member of Riverside Communicators are:
- Make a Connection. Excellent public speaking is not about being perfect on stage. It is about connecting with the audience. Be yourself and share your views and opinions so that the audience can understand and relate to you.
- You can learn. Being able to speak in public with confidence and impact is a skill that everybody can develop. Public figures known for their excellent oratory skills were not born with that ability; they had similar coaching to what is practised at Riverside’s Toastmaster meetings.
- Controlled tension helps. Your nerves will never leave you altogether. That controlled nervous energy just before your address will enable you to speak with confidence and gravitas, thereby engaging and captivating your audience.
When I gave my first speech on the Toastmasters stage, I felt like a fish out of water. I was shaking like a leaf yet trembling with excitement. I inhaled, paused, and then unleashed a fury of words. Done!
Nevertheless, after delivering my speech, the process did not end there.
Riverside Communicators is all about camaraderie, encouragement and promoting growth. So as I sat in the audience, thankful to be out of the spotlight, I then had to hear an evaluation of my speech! To my surprise, the feedback was uplifting yet constructive. I was given ways in which I could improve my speaking. Things that I could implement at that moment.
To help apply the tips, you choose a pathway to help you focus on different aspects of public speaking, such as body language, vocal variety, humour, props, to name but a few. With this structure, a whole playground opened up for me.
I have gone on stage with an ‘L’ plate to describe ‘Life-Long Learning’; I have used a heartbeat to punctuate my speech for impact, and I have switched off all the lights to help create what life might be like for blind people to encourage the audience to see the importance of guide dogs. Where else can you creatively play like this as an adult?
What I relish the most are opportunities to develop your skills through competition. These have been monumental in my Toastmasters journey. In 2019, I competed in the International Speech competition and earned 2nd place at the Division level. Last year I competed, over Zoom and placed 2nd at the District level. Where else are you able to compete internationally?
By pushing back the boundaries of my experiences, I have made breakthroughs in my speaking. Looking back over the feedback, even from my first speech, I was told I speak too fast, and I am ‘warrior-like’ in my approach. Exasperated, I said, “It is just me!” Yet, after participating fully in Toastmasters, I now receive feedback that I am gentler and smile more; my pace is measured and composed.
Through these experiences, I have been able “To strive, to seek, to find” my voice, and “not to yield” to my fears.
Years ago, during one of my annual reviews, it was pointed out I lacked speaking and presentation skills. I couldn’t have agreed more! As a shy engineer, I prided myself on being a hardcore LISTENER. After all, without an audience, who are these speakers going to talk to? The mere thought of public speaking filled me with more terror than having to fight a murderous tiger, and I was no Russell Crowe.
It was suggested I join Toastmasters International, an organisation that teaches public speaking. Not mentioning that ‘Never Volunteer’ was also part of my work ethic, I reluctantly agreed. Two months later, I found myself ready to go on stage to give my first speech. My thoughts were panic-stricken, ‘What am I doing here? What was I thinking? Who will clean up if I throw up on stage?’. My palms were so clammy I had a Tsunami in my hands! As for butterflies in the stomach? Well, it was more like a furious swarm of angry locusts. I remember my mentor saying, ‘Just be yourself, and me thinking, ‘How can I be myself if I faint?’.
Minutes later, I walked off the stage, having successfully given my first speech! The ‘ICEBREAKER’ is defined as an introduction of yourself to the club’. I’ve always thought it should be described as: The ICEBREAKER – an introduction to your potential. Sound gimmicky? It’s not. Toastmasters changes your life, not only by providing speaking skills but, more importantly, by helping you find your voice! A voice that will help you follow your dreams. Yes, that sounds cheesy, but hear me out because I am proof that it works.
I am now a full-time comedian and after dinner (funny) speaker. Guess when I found my voice, it WAS a laughing matter! Don’t get me wrong; public speaking is not straightforward. Toastmasters makes the journey possible thanks to three critical assets I hold dear in my heart: people believe in you. From the moment you walk into a Toastmasters’ club every member has complete confidence, ‘You can do it’. After all, if a shy engineer like me can do it, anyone can!
The power of praise
As adults, we don’t get praised very often. Take annual reviews, which should be full of commendations but usually turn into reasons why you’re not getting a raise. At Toastmasters, feedback is based on praise, which is a crucial life skill because when you learn to praise others, you learn to compliment yourself.
What is more challenging than speaking to a group of people? Well, the TIGER gladiator thing … but apart from that? It’s no mystery that many ordinary people like me take up the challenge to change their life. Because when you learn to speak in public, you find the courage to follow your dreams.
Public speaking can be mastered by anyone, no matter what their starting point. Once you learn and practice in a supportive environment, anything is possible.
Riverside Communicators’ Immediate Past President Rakhi Jain sums up the Toastmasters’ approach: “We have an exceptionally diverse membership at our club, and the only qualifications needed are a desire to follow your dreams and a willingness to support others to achieve theirs!”
So go on, find the courage, learn to speak, and follow your dreams.
Tips from Toastmasters
- Make it personal: use your own story, anecdotes or humour to create an engaging speech.
- Pace and practice: rehearse the speech out loud as often as you can and practice speaking at a calm, steady pace; nerves can make us rush.
- Relax your mind and body: prepare for your speech by breathing and stretching. Before your start, pause, smile and count to three.