3 Breakthroughs From a Rookie Public Speaker

This might come as a surprise, but us WebCommies don’t actually spend all of our time hunched over our keyboards, typing and coding and social media-ing the day away inside our dark office where we’re shut off from real human interaction.

I mean, that’s a majority of our time, but certainly not all of it.

We spend a lot of time communicating face to face and one on one through WebComm office hours, social media consulting and brainstorming sessions. Not only that, we sometimes get up in front of large groups of people — on and off campus — to share our expertise.

In some way or another, we all do this: this dreaded thing called public speaking. In fact, since I was hired in June 2014, I’ve led a WebComm workshop where I shared tips about storytelling in higher education in front of other campus communicators, and I presented at the iPro Oklahoma conference about writing for the web. In a few weeks, I’ll present at the eduWeb conference in downtown Chicago about creating content students actually pay attention to.

Don’t get me wrong, public speaking never fails to give me some degree of the heebie-jeebies, but I’ve slowly but surely been coming around to it, getting better at it and learning to enjoy it. Instead of avoiding it or doing it only when I have to, I’ve been seeking out opportunities to speak to large crowds.

And for that, I have the public speaking organization Toastmasters International to thank.

Toastmasters: Boomer Nooners Chapter

Since joining the “Boomer Nooners” chapter of Toastmasters in November of last year, I have learned to look forward to being in front of an audience. I went from: Oh my gosh, do people want to hear what I have to say? to I’ve got something to say, darn it, and I can’t wait to show ya what I’ve got. What a wonderful little breakthrough, guys.

Speaking of breakthroughs, I’ve got three I want to share about public speaking that might help you face your fears, hone your communication skills or inspire you to lead that next office meeting instead of sitting in the back of the room hoping no one looks at you. The main hurdle for a lot of people — and I was no exception — was to work on the fear factor, so that’s where we’ll start.

1. Remember: Sometimes it’s all an act

You want to be convincing, right? If you’re up there visibly shaking, with your voice noticeably wavering, your audience will feel uncomfortable too.

This isn’t the first time I’ve said this on the blog, but sometimes you have to fake it till you make it. And when it comes to public speaking, that means giving your audience the impression that this whole speech is NBD; you do this alllllllllll the time. And when you start to think of it as acting, the pressure starts to fade away. You start acting like being in front of a bunch of people is small potatoes, and pretty soon it is small potatoes.

What I do first thing, when I’m introduced and welcomed to the front of the room, I jump up and look as excited as I can to be there. I smile the whole time I walk up there like I can’t wait to do this. And I don’t stop smiling until I start talking. Before I open my mouth, I take a couple seconds to pause and think about my body language. What are my hands doing? How am I standing? The pose I strike and this first impression will set the pace for the rest of the speech, so I want to get it right. If I strike a confident stance — feet shoulder-width apart, shoulders back and head up — I can trick my mind into thinking I’m more comfortable than I am.

Related: We Put The ‘POW!’ In #PowerPose

From there, I project, because I know shy, timid people are difficult to hear and today, I’m neither shy nor timid; I’m a master speech-giver! I also make broad gestures with my hands because I know a scared person would leave her hands on the lectern the whole time, and I am most certainly not scared. No way …

One piece of feedback I’ve gotten consistently after my Toastmasters speeches is that I look so comfortable and confident while giving my speech. Am I? Not really. For the first 30 seconds or so, I am so far from that. Those first 30 seconds are the most difficult for me. But after that, I start to think: I’ve already been up here for this long and I thought this was going to be awkward and uncomfortable but wait, am I actually commanding this room? I think I am! How about that. Look at me go!

Toastmasters note

Before I know it, I hit my stride and I don’t need to pretend anymore. Now I’ve started reassuring myself before I get up there that I’ll eventually hit that point in my speech, but until I do, I’m going to act my little heart out.

Whatever you do, don’t apologize for your wacky nerves. This piece of advice comes straight from the Toastmasters’ manual (see “90 Tips From Toastmasters“), and I agree completely.

“Most of the time your nervousness doesn’t show at all. If you don’t say anything about it, nobody will notice. If you mention your nervousness or apologize for any problems you think you have with your speech, you’ll only be calling the audience’s attention to it. Had you remained silent, your listeners may not have noticed anything.”

True dat. At a conference in Oklahoma City this past year, a local comedian told us how nervous he was and apologized for it. After that, it’s the only thing I could think about the whole time he was talking. I might not have noticed if he didn’t bring it up.

2. Don’t memorize your speech

In college, I was so weirded out by public speaking that I signed up for my first evening class, thinking anyone my age would probably have taken the class during the day. I would be left with all the non-threatening, non-traditional students (because, let’s face it: young people are judge-y and terrifying). I got my wish and ended up with a ragtag group of senior citizens and middle-aged moms and dads — way more my speed.

I gave a speech about the political references in Dr. Seuss books, and I had memorized all of it, including a short poem in my conclusion. Or, as the story goes, I tried to memorize all of it and totally bombed at the very end. I was left in front of this group of people, floundering, grasping for the words and coming up with nothing. I had no backup plan, no other words to fall back on.

After attending dozens of Toastmasters meetings, I quickly see my folly lies in believing that memorizing — and not giving myself the freedom to figure out my words on the spot — would save me. Memorizing seemed safe: Hey, no thinking involved! Now I know if I need to recite something, I can pull that quote or poem out of my pocket. (Man, I love seeing people pull stuff out of their pockets during speeches; I’m not even joking. It’s like a mini-magic trick. Something’s coming out of their pocket — what will it be?!)

Or, I can simply refer to my notes if I’ve got them. It’s totally not a big deal to look down and get your bearings if it means you’ll get it right.

Even better, I can feel confident enough to pivot on the spot. If I can’t find the words I thought I knew, I’ll reword it into something new. And the magic in that is it’ll sound more natural anyway!

I love this little bit from Emmy-nominated producer Stephanie Liang from a recent article on thecoveteur.com.

Be Prepared to be Unprepared

3. Go see other people speak, just for kicks

I know some people who absolutely hate conferences. I’m not one of them. I especially enjoy them now that I’m more invested in my public speaking and am constantly critiquing speakers in my head. I love to see firsthand what makes people effective speakers — regular Joes just like me who aren’t actors or well-known politicians and don’t speak before hundreds of people every day.

Toastmasters is both a blessing and a curse in that I have learned to slow down and think about what I’m saying before it leaves my mouth, but I tend to catch everyone else’s “ums” and “likes” and double clutches (accidentally saying the same word twice). Once you start paying attention to that, you’ll never stop, and it might drive you crazy.

If you’ve got an interest in public speaking, go see comedians live. Go to to conferences and take notes, not just on the subject matter, but on the person delivering the message. What did that person do to make the delivery more effective? And what did they do that you didn’t like and want to avoid doing in your speeches?

I’ve already noticed little things from the conferences I’ve attended recently, like people giving a long, drawn-out “um” as they look at their new slide and try to figure out what they want to say about it. Some people repeat exactly what’s on their slide instead of using it as a jumping-off point.

On the other hand, I see people with such stage presence and command of the room that it inspires me to keep at it.

If you can shake those heebie-jeebies and embrace the uncomfortable — and realize that one day you, too, will be kicking butt at this — there’s hope for you yet.

We started with some basics to build upon today, but keep watching the #TeamWebComm blog for more public speaking tips and make sure to comment with your own!

— Morgan

Featured photo by Joey Rozier on flickr.

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