Investing in Yourself: Public Speaking

investRecently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks.

Early on in my career, I was more or less forced into several public speaking situations. I didn’t view this as an opportunity to improve myself – instead, I viewed it as something that had to be done, something dreaded, something I did not want to do. I’d hem and haw and not practice and try to avoid even thinking about it and, unsurprisingly, my first few times on the stage were atrociously bad.

After doing it several times, though, I began to discover several things. First, I began to get better at it. I felt more natural standing up on the stage talking about projects and encouraging people to get involved. Second, as I got better at it, people responded in a variety of ways, most of which were surprising to me. I started getting a lot of individual responses from people who were intrigued, I got quite a few slaps on the back and offers to go out for drinks and connect, and I even got a few offers to speak in other venues.

In a nutshell, better public speaking improved my business opportunities, increased my personal opportunities, and helped construct a number of valuable relationships and friendships. This isn’t a lesson that came easy for me – I truly did not want to speak in public and the only benefit I could see at first is that it was a chore that I simply got through. Now, I yearn for opportunities to speak – I improve my own skills and I usually form the basis for strong relationships later on.

Here are some methods for getting started with public speaking.

Read How to Win Friends and Influence People.
As I related in the past, How to Win Friends and Influence People had a profound impact on my life. It was given to me by a very influential mentor early in my career and he regularly encouraged me to read it and practice what it said inside. It took a while, but when I finally opened the covers and absorbed the contents of the book and – even more importantly – began to apply what it said, it triggered a profound difference in how I spoke in public situations. Carnegie’s book broke things down into little mechanics that one can practice, which is where the magic lies for a goal- and task-oriented person like myself.

This is a book that’s pretty easy to pick up on PaperBackSwap or at your local library, so the idea that “it costs too much” isn’t really a good one. I’ve owned three copies over the years and all three were found in used bookstores or on PaperBackSwap.

Read the book and practice some of the specific tips. The book is mostly a collection of specific techniques to work on, all of which are very good at improving both your public speaking ability and your conversational ability. Work on the tips. When I worked through the book, I would focus on one tip at a time, trying to master just that tip for a week or two and also meshing it with the ones I’d already tried. It worked very well.

Please note that Carnegie often gets into talking mechanically about things that make some feel uncomfortable, like reminders to smile and listen when conversing with others. For someone like me, who would tend to either be more boisterous than I should be or I would mumble one word responses and stare at my feet, these things were useful to think about and make sure that I was doing. For some people, this stuff comes naturally and it seems facetious to talk about it. If you’re in the latter group and you read a piece that seems facetious, just skip over it – Carnegie’s writing to people like me who aren’t exactly adept at such human interactions.

Take a public speaking class – and take it seriously.
When I was in college, I took a public speaking class that I didn’t treat with any seriousness. I basically blew the whole thing off, doing all of my speeches completely impromptu. I got an A. I learned nothing.

That was a big mistake. Looking back on the class, most of the things I needed to know about public speaking was right there for the taking. The problem was that I was more focused on just getting the A and getting out the door than on actually learning anything.

If there was one single class from college that I could re-take, it would be this one. I wish I had the opportunity to work through public speaking in such an environment again, because it’s truly such a universal skill that you’ll use in almost any career. I’ve used it in a highly technical career and I anticipate using it again as a writer. That’s something profound.

See what your community college or local university has available. This is a great class to take in the evenings or on weekends as a standalone class. It’s definitely an opportunity to build skills, and as a standalone class, it’s often a very affordable option as well. When you do take such a course, though, take it seriously. Don’t just do it on the spur of the moment and don’t decide it’s foolish when you’re there. Absorb everything you can.

See if this is something your job will cover. Some positions encourage continued education and this is the type of class that HR departments will see value in. Check around with your organization’s HR department and see if you can take such a class and get reimbursed – or, even better, they’ll let you do it during work hours (it happens if the organization sees it as being truly valuable).

Focus on the big points and make them clear to everyone in the room.
Most of the bad talks I’ve ever seen had one thing in common: there were too many points. I couldn’t walk away from it and really say what they were talking about because there was no coherent theme to the whole thing. If your audience can’t come away and identify one or two of your basic points, then you’ve failed as a speaker.

So, how can you accomplish this, especially when you have a mountain of stuff to present?

Define the one to three points you really want to get across in your talk. An audience won’t retain the nuances of what you’re saying – if you’re presenting fifty facts, they won’t retain all of them, even in a college lecture course with people note-taking like crazy. Instead, focus on just the key ideas you want to get across first. What do you want to have them take away from this? Keep that number very small – three at most.

Now, tie all of the information you want to present to those one to three points. This will form the basic structure of what you’re going to talk about. You can definitely present fifty facts, but those facts should all be supporting a few basic take-home ideas.

As you present all of the specifics, keep actively tying them back to the main points. Show how all of this data just reinforces and clarifies those main points.

Here’s a great example: imagine this post about 100 money saving tips as a presentation. In reality, all of these tips tie back to one central point: saving money on mundane life activities frees up money to invest and pay off debts.

Volunteer for public speaking opportunities when they come up, both professionally and personally.
This is excellent advice for your career as well. Whenever there’s a chance for you to speak to others, take it. Take it in the workplace, take it in your social life, take it anywhere. Give a presentation at a work meeting. Give a toast at a wedding. Do a liturgical reading during a church service. Do anything that gets you up in front of an audience, speaking to them.

Practice makes perfect. A lot of people don’t volunteer because they’re not confident in their abilities. Guess what? Few people are confident in their public speaking abilities. Most people are nervous when they get up in front of people, and most people make mistakes and errors when they’re up there. Remember, though, that when someone stands in front of a room and gives it a shot, they’re practicing. They’re getting better. They’re getting a leg up. Don’t let others take that opportunity.

The people up front are the people who are noticed and valued. Another important thing to note is that the people who speak are often the ones that are noticed and valued by the crowd. The speakers will often represent what many are thinking and will sometimes provide valuable information to the people who are listening. Even a very bad speaker will usually create a positive response from a crowd, as long as they keep it within their timeframe.

Just stand up and take that chance. If you do it often enough, you’ll get good at it.

Join Toastmasters.
This is one opportunity I really wish I had more time to follow up on. From the time I really discovered the value of public speaking to the birth of my child, I attended these meetings off and on and found them very valuable.

In a nutshell, Toastmasters International is a club where people go to practice their public speaking skills. At the meetings I attended, most of the time was spent with various people speaking in front of the group, both prepared and impromptu and at different lengths. After each one, everyone gave some feedback to the speaker, both positive and points for improvement. In other words, if you want to build your speaking skills in a non-cutthroat environment, this is a killer place to go.

My suggestion to you is to find a meeting and invest the time to check it out. If you’re really motivated to improve your public speaking skills, it’s probably the best one hour a week investment that you could possibly make with your time.

Ask for critical feedback when you speak – and work on what they tell you.
Whenever you speak in front of a group, make sure to ask for feedback after you’ve finished speaking, particularly from members of the audience that you trust. Platitudes are nice, but ask them if they can name anything you could do to improve, because that’s where the value is.

What I usually do when I speak is I identify two to five people in the crowd that I know and reasonably trust. Very rarely will you be in a situation where you don’t know that many people in the crowd.

After the speech, ask each of those people for a bit of feedback. Ask them what one thing you could have done better during your presentation. No matter how good you were, you can always improve, and the people that you have a strong relationship with will be likely to be paying the closest attention.

Also, ask a few random people from the room the same question. Preferably, these are people that you don’t know. You’ll likely get some very different responses than from the people you trust.

There are a lot of careers and opportunities out there that come to people who put forth the effort to speak well in public situations. Learning how to speak well is one of the best investments in yourself that you can possibly make.

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