Public Speaking Skills

The best public speaking is similar to the best everyday speaking. It speaks to the listener or listeners, it happens for a good reason, and it comes from the heart.
—Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro

My Story: How I Learned to Speak in Public

My own experience in public speaking went from doing it right as a child, to doing it all wrong in high school, to learning how to do it the right way.

My mother told  me I was a natural-born storyteller. She showed me pictures where I sat on the grass surrounded by my younger brother and sister and a group of friends. I could see from my expression that I was at a high point in some kind of story.

“You made up all those stories,” my mother said. “You just started and made them up as you went along.”

When I was fifteen years old, I was interested in world religions.  After months of study, I was invited to do a program for my church youth group… probably because they had no other program lined up. Not long after that, I was invited to do the same presentation to the Men’s Group at church. Again, I have to believe that they had no other program available. Who knows? But I was excited.I mention these because I had no fear of public speaking. I had a topic that I knew a great deal about and that I was passionate about.

In high school, making a speech was an entirely different activity. Each year I entered a contest called “I Speak for Democracy.” For the contest we needed to write the speech. That’s how we were first judged. Only the finalists spoke in front of an audience. Furthermore, speaking in front of the audience required either reading the speech or memorizing it, since it had to be exactly the speech we had written.  I  went through the written speech marking words to emphasize, where to pause and take a breath.. I enjoyed doing this and managed to deliver my speeches well. I won the contest three years and once advanced to the state contest.

This sort of old-fashioned oratory is designed to impress people with what an outstanding orator you are. There was no expectation that I would inform or persuade anyone in the audience that democracy was a good thing. Listeners comments on how excellent the speeches were, but I’m sure they remembered very little.

Thank goodness, when I got to college, I took a class in public speaking. We were encouraged to choose a topic that would be interesting to the other students, to organize our ideas, perhaps to share an experience or story, or to encourage the other students to do something. Most importantly, we were encouraged to write a brief outline on a 3 x 5 card but NEVER to write out the entire speech.

Every Student Should Learn Public Speaking

I strongly advise every student to take a public speaking class in college. If your school doesn’t offer a class, find a summer school that does. You could also find a group called Toastmasters. Certainly you could study a book on public speaking but that is missing the most important part of a class. You need to practice speaking in front of a group. You can’t learn to swim without getting in the water. You can’t learn to speak without standing before a group and speaking. 

Ten Reasons to learn  Public Speaking

1. It will build your confidence. If you can speak comfortably in front of a group, you can express yourself clearly and confidently among friends, among co-workers, in a meeting, etc.

2. In college, you will feel more comfortable speaking up in class. You will know to organize your ideas before speaking and you will be confident in expressing them. Professors are impressed with students who can discuss a topic clearly and intelligently. They will view you as “one of the brightest students in the class.”

3. The ability to speak confidently to a group is an important part of leadership. You might not be interested in political office but you might be asked to lead a team in your workplace or lead a committee.

4. Speaking in public requires you to think through an idea carefully, to look at it from all perspectives. You need to organize your ideas. With this experience, you learn to be a clear, organized thinker in other situations.

5. Learning to be a good speaker, organizing your ideas, illustrating them with stories and examples, helps you become a better writer.

6. When you go to a job interview, your speaking skills can help you be more confident, answer questions more easily, and yes, you can conquer your fears.

7. In your job, your skills in organizing and explaining ideas will build your reputation. You will be a more successful salesperson. You will be asked to do more presentations (something others may fear) and this can lead to promotions and positions of leadership.

8. You will conquer your fears. If you are afraid of public speaking and become a skilled speaker, you understand that you can face and conquer all of your fears.

9. One area of speaking that students most fear involves meeting and conversing with people, especially those you most admire, those you want to know better. If you can conquer your fear of public speaking, you can conquer your fear of speaking to an admired professor, and to college students, you can introduce yourself to that special man or special woman. Perhaps in the future, you can use your skills to discuss the important topics in developing that relationship. And someday you may feel more confident in asking the one you love to marry you.

10. And yes, if you do aim for political office at any level, you will feel comfortable making speeches and be less likely to say things without thinking them through first.  Candidates for office are frequently judged on how well they can speak, how clearly they express their ideas, and how well they relate to their listeners through meaningful stories and examples.

Fears of Public Speaking

I’ve heard so many people say this: “I can’t possibly speak to a group. I am terrified of public speaking.”.”

To be honest, I do sometimes get butterflies in the stomach, especially when facing an unusually large group like 500 fellow teachers. But I convince myself this isn’t fear; this is excitement. I have this wonderful opportunity to share something I’m really excited about. I hope that some of these teachers will get excited and use these ideas to change their way of teaching.

We’ve all heard that more people are afraid of public speaking than are afraid of dying. People say that, but if you faced one of these people and gave them a choice of speaking or being shot, I’m sure over 99% would choose to speak. It’s just that they worry about having to speak but don’t worry about dying.

Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

When George Bernard Shaw was asked how he learned to speak so compellingly in public, he replied: “I did it the same way I learned to skate – by doggedly making a fool of myself until I got used to it.” —Dale Carnegie, The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, p.21

And then a favorite quote of mine, a story who was terrified of public speaking:

Once one of the most timorous of men; by practicing self-assurance, he became of the boldest; he was the trust-busting, audience-swaying, Big-Stick wielding President of the United States: Theodore Roosevelt.  —Dale Carnegie  p.41

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