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How to Become a World Class Speaker

Really great presentation skills. Some people in science seem to have them, and some don’t.

I am one of the don’ts. Sure, I can get up in front of people and talk when needed, but it won’t be a polished performance by any means. I can get my message across but my delivery is not comfortable or fluid for me or my audience.

But really great speaking skills can open doors. They allow you to present your work professionally in career-defining situations like job interviews and international conferences.

And a nice side effect is that really great speaking skills also give you confidence that can help you with things like developing relationships, networking and mentoring to name just a few.

But, if you don’t have them, how do you get really great speaking skills? I have the answer, but first I’ll tell you what won’t work…

Lame presentation courses are not the answer

I have been on about 7 or 8 presentation courses in my life and I can tell you these are not the answer. Universities  seem to love these and (in my experience) will often pay a professional communicator a fair chunk of cash to teach a 1 or 2 day presentation skills course to PhD students/scientists.

You can pick up some tips from courses like this but they will not allow you to develop top class speaking skills because they are just too one dimensional. You might get some pointers on how you could stand better or speak more clearly but to develop great speaking skills quickly and effectively you need more than that…

You need regular practice at presenting in a setting where if you screw up, your job or reputation doesn’t depend on it.

You need to challenge yourself to give different kinds of speeches that take you out of your comfort zone and let you stretch yourself in new ways.

And most of all you need mentoring, encouragement and feedback from many different people who will all have a different take on the way you talk.

How to get great speaking skills: Join Toastmasters International

All of these things are available at your local Toastmasters International club.

Toastmasters International is a truly remarkable, non-profit, worldwide educational movement consisting of  12,000 clubs in 106 countries.

It was started in the YMCA in Santa Ana, California in 1924 by Ralph C. Smedley who wanted to bolster the YMCA members by giving them “training in the art of public speaking and in presiding over meetings”.

Smedley’s original ethos – that the toastmasters club should function like a social club providing a place for members to develop their speaking skills in a supportive, informal atmosphere – still holds true.

But in the modern day, what makes Toastmasters so effective, unique and remarkable is that each club is run by its members, for its members.

There are no tutors or leaders at Toastmasters, only club members who are there to develop their own skills and learn from one and other.

And the time and money involved is minimal. Each member pays around $100 per year towards the running of the club and groups normally meet for 2 hours every two weeks.

This is a tiny price to pay for the benefits of Toastmasters.

My first Toastmasters speech

About 4 months ago, I joined my local Toastmasters International group and it is already clear that this is the way for me to become an excellent speaker.

I gave my first speech last week and it went the way my speeches/presentations normally do… ok, but not comfortable.

But immediately I felt a benefit — from the experience of talking in a relatively non-pressure situation (i.e. my job/reputation was not at stake) and from the wealth of feedback I received, from the 20 or so other members of the group and from the person who had volunteered to do a detailed evaluation of my speech.

The path to becoming a competent communicator

And best of all, I have taken the first step on a the ladder to becoming a “Competent Communicator”. This is the Toastmasters program of 10 speech challenges that are desiged to set you well on your way to becoming a (very) competent presenter.

These 10 speech challenges are expertly structured to develop different aspects of your speacking abilities, to take you out of your comfort zone and allow you to develop faster than giving similar lab meeting presentations week on week ever could.

The 10 speeches are:

  1. The Ice-breaker. An easy 5 minute speech about yourself. To get you started on the way and to get some feedback on your speaking skills as they stand.
  2. Organize your speech. Focusing on laying out your speech structure
  3. Get to the point. Choose a purpose for your speech(e.g. to inform, entertain etc) and ensure that you structure and deliver your speech to do just that.
  4. How to say it. Focusing on using the right words in your speech; eliminating jargon, choosing nice words and sentence structures to vividly convey your ideas.
  5. Your body speaks. In this one you concentrate on using your stance, movement, facial expressions and eye contact to connect with the audience.
  6. Vocal variety. An experiment in injecting voal variety into your speech. No more scientist monotone after this one.
  7. Research your topic. We scientists should be good at this one — taking in information from a variety of sources and using it to support and argument you make in your speech.
  8. Visual aids. We should hopefully be good at this one too, although not as good as we think I expect.
  9. Presuade with power. Attempt to persuade your listeners to adopt your viewpoint.
  10. Inspire your audience. Appeal dramatically to your audience’s emotions to try and inspire them.

Completing the 10 speeches seems to take about 1-2 years on average but it should be easily possible to complete in 3-4 years — the length of the average PhD or postdoc.

In my local Toastmasters group, everyone who has completed these speeches is an excellent speaker and some are truly world class.

So it is entirely possible, with a bit of dedication and work, to become an excellent, or even world class speaker, during the course of your PhD or postdoc.

After completing the competent communicator manual, you can then move on to the advanced communicator manual and improve your skills even further – so the sky’s the limit.

Impromptu speaking

As well as being about improving your delivery of set speeches, Toastmasters will also expand your impromptu speaking abilities. At every meeting there is a “Table Topics” activity, where individual members are challenged to talk “off-the-cuff” about a subject set by the table topics master.

This sounds daunting (and it is — I have not done one yet!) but the friendly “we are all in the same boat” atmosphere makes it easier and people seem to improve very quickly after doing this for a while.

Leadership skills

As I mentioned earlier, there are no tutors at Toastmasters. There are a number of set roles required for each meeting, including:

  • The Toastmaster, who is the “presenter” of the meeting responsible for who introducing the speakers etc, much like a TV anchorman.
  • The evaluators, who give feedback on each speech and activity.
  • The time keeper, who ensures that the meeting stays on time according to a strict schedule and signals speakers when their time is up.

…and several more.

But these roles are filled by ordinary members of the club. These roles form part of the “Competent Leader” course, which runs in parallel with the “Competent Communicator” course I mentioned earlier.

The idea of the “Competent Leader” course  is — as you might guess — to improve your leadership and mentoring skills.

This is a great idea, and is what makes Toastmasters work so well and at such a low cost: Everyone who contributes to the meeting, whether it be by giving a speech or performing a leadership role, gets something our of it.

And one two more things…

One more benefit of Toastmasters for PhD students and postdocs who are taking up their post in a new town is that your Toastmasters club is a ready-made group of friends so they can really help you settle down. They are also not all scientists, which is great because your circle of friends in a new place often consists only of your colleagues, so non-scientists can be a welcome breath of fresh air.

And finally, Toastmasters is worth considering even (or especially) if English is not your first language and you need to get to grips with it fast. Several people at my Toastmasters club are non-native English speakers and find that the challenge that Toastmasters brings helps them improve their English skills very quickly.

Give it a try

So if the idea of developing world class presentation skills appeals to you, go ahead and try Toastmasters. Check out the Toastmasters website for more information on the organisation and click here to find your nearest club.

You can go along to three Toastmasters meetings as a guest with no need to talk (apart from briefly introducing yourself at the start of the meeting) and no commitment to join, so you have nothing to lose.

If you do give Toastmasters a try, leave a comment here to let us know what you think.

4 Comments

  1. Pablo on September 28, 2011 at 5:45 am

    Suzanne, after looking at the Pew survey it seems you have reported the results incorrectly.you claim 51% say they believe in God but that isn’t quite accurate, 51% say they believe in God OR a higher power. you have included the group who say they DO NOT believe in god but do believe in a higher power in the group that believe in God to get your 51% believers. How can those who clearly say they DO NOT BELIEVE IN GOD be included as God believers?

  2. Charles on June 16, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    There is a website from the great Garr Reynolds called http://www.presentationzen.com
    I can recommend that site to everyone how thinks that the typical powerpoints are common and ok.
    He frequently discuss talks given by others and explains what could be improved or can be adopted. I recommend the basic articles about presentation which can be found on the left menue. It’s worth reading.

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