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How to master the art of public speaking

Alexis Thompson

A Toastmasters International class is the perfect place to sharpen your communication skills and give your confidence a kick-start, Alexis Thompson discovers

Picture this scene. You’re stood in front of a room full of strangers all watching and waiting intently for you to open your mouth and say something profound – something that’s going to make a difference to their lives. Your palms are clammy, your face is flushed and your throat is dry. You open your mouth to speak, acutely aware of all those inquisitive eyes on you, you take a deep breath, but to your horror the only thing that comes out of your mouth is a tiny croak. You start shaking, your mind goes blank and the only thing you can do is run off the stage, hoping that you never come across any of these people again. This is the situation most of us dread happening when we’re asked to make a speech or give a presentation. However, if you learn a few simple techniques to engage with your audience, as well as gain a little confidence in public speaking, it can easily be avoided – well, in theory. 
 

Not particularly being one to relish the limelight, I decided it was time to combat my fear of public speaking and sign up to a class organised by Cass Business School Toastmasters Club. The club is part of Toastmasters International – a nonprofit organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. This particular branch meets on the 2nd and 4th Monday every month at Cass Business School in Central London. 

“We get people from all backgrounds, ages and occupations,” the club’s president Chamila Ratnayake told me when I arrived. “But it is good for managers and leaders – the type of people who are often having to stand up in front of an audience and deliver speeches and presentations.” 
The session kicked-off with a number of ‘table topic discussions’ which involved chosen club members standing up and talking for a few minutes on a random subject matter, without any preparation. My stomach lurched forward – was I going to be expected to do this? Standing up in front of an audience and delivering a speech without any slides or script is one aspect of public speaking that particularly fills me with dread. 

The majority of the people who took part were actual members, but they all appeared to be very good at it, and Chamila promised me that with practice it does get a lot easier. The table topic discussions are something which the club practice regularly and I can see how beneficial the experience would be once you’ve mastered it. “This is the sort of thing that’s great practice for interviews, when the panel fire a question at you, and you haven’t prepared for it,” Chamila pointed out to me. 

After the discussions we were asked to evaluate each speaker and then vote anonymously for our favourite. The president then went through an evaluation of each of the speakers, offering suggestions and tips for improvement, as well as encouragement by pointing out the good points of their speech. One thing that was reassuring was that everybody seemed very friendly and accommodating – there were no bored or vacant looking faces in the room, everybody clearly wanted to be there. But unfortunately as we all know, in the real world of public speeches and presentations, this isn’t always the case. 

Following this, the guests (non members), including myself, were asked to briefly introduce themselves and then tell people their favourite thing about spring. Luckily this was something that could be done from the comfort of my chair and I tried to keep mine short and to the point – no chance for error. A few minutes was then set aside for some networking. As I chatted to various people around the room (there must have been around 17 of us in total) it seemed everybody had their own reasons for being here, aside from improving their public speaking. A few told me it was to meet new people, one girl told me it was nice to do something different with her evenings after work, and another said it was to gain more confidence and do something out of their comfort zone. 

The session ended with a number of prepared speeches by four club members. These speeches, which could be on a topic of their choice, lasted around several minutes and it was interesting to see the different presentation styles. One man was very animated – demonstrating his moving story with hand gestures and pacing back and fourth across the room. Another lady drew on her childhood experiences in Africa – a story which was emotive and very thoughtful, she spoke in a relaxed manner but her words were clear and crisp. According to Charlie Lawson, national director of the BNI (Business Network International), in a 20-30 minute presentation, the actual words you use will account for only 15% of the impact – 45% comes from use of the voice, and 40% will come from your body language. This was something that was reinforced in the class – the importance of eye contact, hand gestures and movement kept being highlighted by the evaluators.  

At the end of the prepared speeches we were again asked to evaluate each and then vote for our favourite. The evaluations and the results of the best speaker were then revealed at the end of the session. A nice confidence boost for the person nominated best speaker – something which is crucial if you’re going to feel at ease with public speaking. A class like this could definitely help even the most reclusive person be drawn out of their shell, but I was curious to meet others, who like myself, were just starting from scratch. How long does it take before you can stand confidently in front of a room full of strangers and not break out into a cold sweat? I guess that all depends on the individual, I think for me it will take a little more time and experience, but attending a Toastmasters class should definitely help speed up the transformation from nervous bumbler to inspirational speaker. 

To find out more about the class visit casstoastmasters.co.uk 


Here’s some tip tips from Christina Hession of Toastmasters International, on how to bounce back from presentation brain freeze 

Practice, practice, practice: Don’t memorise every word of your presentation – just the beginning and the end. Know your three key points. Use personal stories or anecdotes, which will be easier to remember. Have notecards with key phrases nearby just in case.

Sleep: Get good quality sleep and avoid over rehearsing. Listen to your body - without proper rest the mind-body system falters and eventually shuts down.

Eat well: Cut out take-aways and heavy carbohydrates. Eat oily fish and fresh vegetables. Cut down on coffee and tea. Replace with herbal teas and drink two to three litres of water per day.

Exercise: Do at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day to alleviate tension. You can also use the time to mentally rehearse your presentation or come up with new ideas.

Focus and be in the moment: Pre presentation, clear the mind of irrelevant thoughts, distractions and tensions. Try this exercise: Focus on an object, let everything else blur into the background and let all external sounds become inaudible. Think ‘focus, relax, smooth’ to keep your mind on target.

Confront your worst case scenarios: Write down the worst things that could happen e.g. you lose your place. Then write down how you could handle this scenario if it happens, e.g. you pause, take a sip of water to give you time to think of what you were saying. 

Meditation: Practicing meditation for at least 15 minutes per day will enhance your concentration and reduce your stress levels. Start off with just five minutes and concentrate on your in and out breaths. If you get distracted by external sounds or thoughts, just re-focus on your breathing.

Visualization: Visualise any feared obstacle e.g. shaking, dry mouth, forgetting your words, and then visualise yourself triumphing over these and delivering a fantastic presentation to an appreciative audience.

Breathing: Breathe deeply from your diaphragm to relax you and lower tension. Try this exercise: Breathe through your nose and feel your stomach rising as your inhale, and falling as you exhale. Ensure your inhalations and exhalations last the same amount of time. You can practice this technique, before you are called to speak.

Keep going: If you go blank, don’t end your presentation and sit down. Take it from me, this will trap you in a never-ending cycle of defeat, and you will torment yourself before and during each subsequent presentation. Take some seconds out, pause, smile and keep going. The audience don’t have a copy of your presentation and won’t know you’ve left something out.  


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