The thought of public speaking usually conjures up one of two things for professionals: terror or acceptance. It rarely seems to be something anyone looks forward to or enjoys, unless you’re blessed with natural stage presence, witty repartee, and profound confidence.
If you’re looking for a new challenge, learning how to overcome your fears and/or make improvements to your overall presentation style could be one of the best things you do for yourself this year. Not only can it be a huge benefit in your career, but it can also help with life in general – enabling you to speak with confidence and eloquence in situations that may be challenging.
Soft skills such as public speaking are highly sought after – and are vital in leadership roles. With dedication and practise, it’s possible for anxious or shy people to finesse their presentation skills and learn how to deliver to any audience.
William Hagerup, President of the 104 London Debaters, has been involved with Toastmasters for more than 10 years. He took up public speaking initially for his work which led to it becoming a hobby and passion. At the London club, he mentors people in the art of debate – an exciting challenge for those who have already mastered the art of public speaking.
Q: How transformative can public speaking skills be in the workplace?
A: In the workplace, the ability to speak confidently and present in a convincing way can be powerful.
Good communication skills can encourage people to get on board with your ideas, regardless of your role. For example, speaking well can make all the difference if you need to sell a product or your own skills in a job interview.
Q: Ahead of a presentation, aside from testing any equipment, what key things should the individual do to help their confidence?
A: It’s very important to understand what makes your presentation successful, to help you gain confidence.
As part of your rehearsal, it’s worth recording your presentation. Watching yourself can be painful, but it’s a useful exercise to help you spot habits or ticks.
Club President of Toastmasters' 104 London Debaters club
As part of your rehearsal, it’s worth recording your presentation. Watching yourself can be painful, but it’s a useful exercise to help you spot habits or ticks – I used to have a tendency of moving my head too much. If you’re far away from the audience people may not notice these things, but if you’re projected on a big screen, or in an online meeting, the camera magnifies you which can be very distracting for the audience.
It’s also useful to get feedback from a trusted mentor, friend, or a colleague who is more experienced, and who can give you some honest feedback.
Q: Introverts and extroverts – can they master public speaking in the same way?
A: It’s often easier for extroverts to stand up in front of people, but it’s okay to have different presentation styles if you don’t have that confidence. The important thing is to find your voice and a way that you can be you in front of people without being too nervous, finding peace in being just the way you are.
Extroverts, like myself, have one disadvantage in that we can sometimes have an unsubstantiated self-confidence which can lead to a lack of focus, perhaps not communicating in the best way.
The introvert tends to be much more careful with their preparation, making sure they have everything clear for the audience, with their PowerPoint and with what they say. I’ve often seen examples of this with the nervous, wobbly-voiced introvert outshining the confident extrovert whose presentation is rushed or disjointed.
Q: Handling nerves – what to do when your throat goes dry before you’ve said a word?
A: If your nerves are debilitating so that you just can’t deliver, you should practise well in advance.
I’ve found breathing slowly and deeply really helps just before you start, and then look away from the audience. Perhaps the introduction is being given before you speak and your heart is pounding – use the moment to look out of the window to distract yourself, just don’t look at the audience.
Once you take the podium and you're in the focus, look over their heads and scan back and forth, so you only pretend to look at them – fake it till you make it.
Gradually your confidence will build because you’ve realised the sky didn’t fall down and no one is throwing things at you. But still don't look at the audience because sometimes if you’re nervous and start looking at people’s faces for reassurance, it can put you off your stride, especially if they’re not very receptive. Only when your nerves are under control should you start to make eye contact, if you wish.
Q: Delivery – can you share any tips for keeping to a designated time slot?
A: Preparation again is the key. Run through it a few times and use a timer.
A good rule of thumb is to use about 100 words a minute, which is a fairly slow speaking pace but a good one to help the audience follow you. Also, it gives a bit of leeway so that if you do improvise and add things that come to mind as you’re speaking, you have enough space to do that.
You should never read from your PowerPoint slides or from a script as it’s really boring. Only refer to them for key points, graphs or pictures that will help engage the audience.
Club President of Toastmasters' 104 London Debaters club
You should never read from your PowerPoint slides or from a script as it’s really boring. Only refer to them for key points, graphs or pictures that will help engage the audience and jog your memory if you need it. If you run through that a few times with a timer, you can give a fluent presentation without speaking too fast.
If you do need notes to hand, print them large enough that you don’t have to peer at the paper as you’re speaking. You can just have them as a reminder. Index cards are a good idea because you can hold them without fumbling with a big piece of paper, which can act as a barrier between you and the audience. If you are inexperienced or very nervous, write down the main points.
Q: When the tech goes wrong – how should you regain composure when the PowerPoint fails?
A: It’s good to prepare a joke in advance. If you’re able to say something funny when something goes wrong, it takes the edge off the situation. Perhaps just have an ‘emergency’ question ready to put to the audience or ask if they have any questions.
If your presentation depends on you showing some graphs or papers, you might have some print-outs ready to share rather than waiting for something to be fixed, which may take a long time.
I think it’s generally better not to rely too much on just one technology. Always think of backups.
Q: Presenting online – what common pitfalls are there to avoid?
A: The basics are having good light so your face is bright. The sound is very important and should be tested in advance, perhaps with a friend. It might be worth investing in a slightly better microphone which can make a big difference. And then I’d say the position of the camera is important. You don’t want it too far up so that people are looking down at you, and not too far down, because then it looks like you’re standing over them like a strict headmaster.
Speakers sometimes get concerned that they need to look at the various screens and look at people’s faces, but audience members often turn off their cameras. I just ignore that a little bit and write my keywords on a document placed on the screen underneath where my camera is, so I’m looking in the direction of the camera. It's not noticeable for the audience because my eyes are in that direction, so they think I'm looking at them. So that’s quite a nice way of doing it and once I finish, I can just take the notes away and more fully engage with people.
I also often ask if it’s possible for everyone to turn on their cameras, because it’s a bit disconcerting talking to a blank screen or staring at their avatars. And it’s easier for them to zone out and start doing other things and not really pay attention when their cameras are off.
Q: Q&A time – what if you don’t know the answer?
A: I’m quite strict on this so I would say you should’ve done your homework better. I don’t think one should show up for a presentation if you haven't researched your subject thoroughly. There’s no real excuse for lack of preparation – you’re either showing disrespect for your audience or complete ineptitude if you’re not ready to answer any relevant question.
Of course, if it’s not relevant, it’s perfectly fair to say, “I'm sorry, I don’t think that's relevant. It’s not something that is specifically to do with what I said, so I’m not going to be able to answer that one now, but we can talk about it perhaps afterwards or in a different setting”.
If something comes up unexpectedly that you ought to have researched, you’re going to have to be honest and say you haven’t explored that in depth but will be happy to go back to them with an answer through the contact details of the meeting organiser.
What to expect at a Toastmasters meeting
Q: What happens at a typical Toastmasters meeting?
A: Toastmasters is a forum where the stakes are very low. You get up and speak and if you make a complete mess of it, you won’t have lost a million-pound contract but gained an experience that you can learn from and build on, with the help of a supportive audience.
In a standard session, members would deliver a speech between five and seven minutes – then return to their seat and await constructive feedback.
Speakers have a designated feedback person to say what they thought went well in the presentation and what might have made it more engaging or less distracting, always finishing with something positive.
It’s become a bit of a ridiculed phrase, but Toastmasters offers a ‘safe space’. Although it shines a spotlight on people’s weaknesses in public speaking, nobody in that room will make fun of you. It’s a very supportive environment.
Once you’ve presented several times and are feeling less anxious about it, you’ll find the few nerves that remain work in your favour as they tend to give you greater focus.
Q: Debating skills – what can people expect from attending the 104 London Debaters club?
A: The 104 London Debaters club is one of only a handful globally that focuses on debate, which gives an additional challenge to our members.
We have ‘table topics’ where someone suggests a subject to be spoken about for two minutes without any preparation. At the debating club, this takes the form of an improvised mini debate – the topic might be whether cats are better than dogs – it’s great fun and a skill that will stand you in very good stead, sharpening your ability to think on your feet.
Q: Speech impediments – would you recommend people with common speech impairments join Toastmasters?
A: Absolutely. One of our members had a severe stammer and joined Toastmasters as part of his recovery. He’s now helping other people as part of a Toastmasters club – it’s hard to notice his stammer now.
Kings Speakers in London is especially for those who stammer or have social anxiety. Everybody else is welcome too, but it’s specifically to support those with speech impediments.
Toastmasters is for everybody. People come from all sorts of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. It’s a great place to meet new people, build confidence, and improve yourself.
Visit the Toastmasters website for more information and to find your nearest club.
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