Note: This is a longer post than usual, but it will give you a jump start on making your 2016 “Become a better speaker” resolution reality!
Whether you love or hate New Year’s Resolutions, they have most certainly filtered past your field of awareness at least once over the past few weeks. And most of us do spend some time thinking about what we want out of a new year.
Improving public speaking is a popular New Year’s Resolution, especially for those wanting to give their ascent up the career ladder an extra boost. If this is something that has crossed your mind, it would be good to know a bit about your options for public speaking learning opportunities. There are lots of options out there for you, all of which teach different things in different ways. Here is a rundown of some of the more classic choices for learning public speaking, along with some off-the-beaten-path ideas you might want to consider. This is a longer post than usual, but if you have made or are considering making “become a better speaker” one of your 2016 resolutions, than you’ll want to read it through.
These options are tried-and-true avenues for improving your public speaking. They involve learning in organized settings and often involve curated programs or expert instruction.
Toastmasters International and public speaking clubs
Toastmasters is one of the go-to resources for people wanting to learn public speaking. People join Toastmasters for a variety of reasons – to get over their anxiety, to learn how to create specific kinds of speeches, to get experience speaking, to improve their English (or whichever language the group operates in), and to network.
It is a wonderful organization that welcomes people in a friendly and supportive atmosphere. You will be expected to work through the Toastmasters Manuals, which are designed to teach specific speaking skills as well as leadership skills. You will be giving both prepared speeches and impromptu talks, and will receive feedback from members of the club.
It should be noted that this is not a formal coaching program – it is a program where members help members through regular feedback and evaluation. Different clubs have different levels of skills among their members; some clubs are focused on beginners, others may require a degree of prior experience and competency with speaking. It is important to check out a variety of clubs and see which one fits your needs in terms of not only meeting times and locations, but also in terms of focus and member expectations. There is a club out there to fit anyone’s needs; don’t be shy in asking to sit in at a meeting as a guest before committing to becoming a member!
Classes, courses, and workshops
Most cities have public speaking coaches like me who regularly offer classes and workshops for people wanting targeted, focused learning in a group setting. Many universities and colleges also offer courses that are available to the public through their continuing education programs, and many adult learning centres offer such programs as well.
These courses tend to have a more rigorous focus than public speaking clubs like Toastmasters, and there will be more expectations regarding the amount of work put into assignments, as well as your level of participation. You will also receive more targeted feedback on your own performance from people who are experienced professionals in speaking and presenting. Instruction will be more technical in nature and incorporate a wider breadth of technique than you will get from social club style programs. This results in more rapid and dramatic skill development.
The best way to find these classes is to do a broad online search with the terms “public speaking” “class” “course” “presentation” and the name of the city or area where you live. Go through a number of results and talk to the people offering the courses to see which one is the best fit for you.
(If you live in the Edmonton area, click here to visit the information and registration page for my Winter 2016 offering of “Public Speaking For Beginners and the Truly Terrified.” Classes start as early as January 20th.)
Improv, stand-up comedy, and acting classes
These are popular training options for experienced speakers looking to up their game. They are also excellent options for beginners, especially for people who don’t suffer from shyness or who want something more creatively challenging and dynamic. Much of what I teach was learned from formal acting training. Nearly everything you learn in these courses is highly relevant to the art of public speaking – from how to use your voice to how to move in a space to how to respond to the audience’s reactions to your performance. Improv and comedy are especially challenging – being funny is really hard!
Most local theatres offer adult acting and improvisation classes. Local improv troups also often hold courses and workshops. Many adult learning organizations such as community colleges hold classes like these. All these organizations tend to switch up their offerings every four months, so check back regularly to see what they have coming up.
As with group classes, most cities will have people who offer one-on-one private coaching. I find that private coaching is the best option for busy professionals who need extremely focused training. This is usually the preferred option for mid to senior management and executives who need to speak regularly for business purposes. Instruction methods vary widely, and the coaching relationship usually extends over many months or even years. Because of this, it is important to talk the different public speaking coaches available to you and see which one clicks best with your own needs and temperament.
These choices are alternative methods for learning, all of which I have personally used and which my clients and students use. They work best in conjunction with the classic learning options, but with attention and thoughtfulness (and willingness to take risks), you can make them part of your own DIY independent public speaking study.
Listen to Audiobooks
I don’t mean listening to audiobooks specifically about public speaking, I mean listening to audiobooks narrated by highly skilled readers. Fiction is especially effective, because the reader needs to put in extra colour and vibrancy into their delivery to make the story come to life. Pay close attention to how the reader changes their voice, pitch, tone, and speed to create different responses in the listeners. Try to incorporate these strategies into your own speaking.
My favourite readers are Jim Dale (the Harry Potter audiobooks), Stephen Briggs (the Discworld audiobooks), Leo McKern (the Rumpole of the Baily audiobooks – it can be difficult to find McKern’s recordings, but well worth the effort), and Tina Fey (Bossypants).
I don’t find podcasts as effective as audiobooks, as podcasters are often not professional readers or actors and there is a significant difference between short form podcasts and long form audiobooks. There are loads of excellent, entertaining podcast hosts, but reading a full audiobooks, especially fiction, is a skill unto itself.
Attend live speaker events
Attending live speaker events is a very different experience than watching speakers on YouTube. At live events, you have the opportunity to experience the real-time energy of a talk and watch the reactions of the audience around you. Many of the non-verbal exchanges between the speaker and the audience at a live event really can’t be captured on video. I consider attending live events an absolute must for people who want to speak to larger audiences or audiences outside of their work environment.
The most well-known event at the moment is undoubtedly TED, and many cities host TEDx events (click here to see if there is one near you). But another event that is growing in popularity is Nerd Nite, which features 20 minute talks on a huge variety of topics. I’ve attended many Nerd Nites and have learned about everything from neutrinos to charcuterie to how to create Zumba choreography. I’ve also presented at Nerd Nite. Nerd Nite talks typically have a heavier focus on education and information rather than the ‘inspiration’ style of TED. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Click here to find a Nerd Nite near you.
Pecha Kucha is another worldwide speaker event phenomenon. This event has an extremely strict format: 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, 6:20 per presentation. The slides advance automatically. This is a fantastic example of how to give powerful, concise presentations and is an exhilarating experience both as an audience member and as a speaker. You can see my own Pecha Kucha presentation here.
You can also attend open public lectures at your local university or post-secondary institution. I thoroughly enjoy attending these. You’ll be exposed to top notch information and will also have the chance to see what works and what doesn’t work in terms of presentation. I find that not all academics are skilled lecturers, but those that are deliver absolutely fascinating presentations. Attending public lectures can also give you great ideas for making dry, dense information interesting and accessible.
Get out there and speak!
This is the trial-by-fire method of public speaking training: go out there and do it. There is no substitute for actual experience, and there are a surprising number of ways you can plunge in feet-first and start speaking. You will learn for yourself what works and what doesn’t. I strongly recommend recording your talks for review later, having friends attend your talks so they can review it, and soliciting audience feedback.
Where can you speak? Believe me when I say that opportunities abound. Volunteer to give presentations at work. Join a Toastmasters group and work your way through the manuals. Sign up to give a Pecha Kucha presentation or a Nerd Nite talk. Check with local service groups like Rotary or youth organizations to see if they need presenters. Figure out what you can speak about, and then start contacting organization to see if they would like you to speak for them.
There are so many ways for you to surge ahead in your public speaking skill. Approach the challenge with open-mindedness, optimism, and creativity – that way you’ll not only see the most improvement, but you’ll also have the most fun!
You have something to say. You have ideas to share. So make this the year that you step up, speak up, and make yourself heard!