While walking along 14th Street, NW in downtown DC over the holidays, I came across this quote posted outside a storefront: “If you want something in your life you’ve never had, you’ll have to do something you’ve never done.” – JD Houston
They are powerful words with which to start the new year, especially as you think about how to implement your New Year’s resolutions.
What if your New Year’s resolutions include improving your public speaking skills? Maybe you want to interview for a new job, move up in your company, or take on a more public-facing role. If you lead an organization or division, perhaps you’ve decided that this is the year to improve your employees’ communication skills as part of your company’s professional and leadership development strategy.
In the new year, here are some steps that everyone can take to improve their public speaking skills.
- Observe other speakers. The easiest step you can take is to start noticing other speakers – on television, at conferences, and in the office. Take notes on what other speakers do well and what they can do to improve. Bored in a meeting or conference? Ask yourself, “Why?” Does the content seem irrelevant and out of date? Is the delivery flat and lackluster? Break down your feedback into things you can avoid next time you speak. For an inspiring example of someone trying to overcome her fear of public speaking, watch the first 4 minutes of this commencement speech by Grey’s Anatomy writer and executive producer, Shonda Rhimes, at Dartmouth College.
- Read a book about public speaking. While you can’t learn public speaking solely from a book, there are some solid books out there which you can read to learn about public speaking, provided you put that knowledge into practice after you finish the book. My personal favorite is On Speaking Well by former US President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan (Full disclosure, one of my own New Year’s resolutions is to publish a book on public speaking in 2015. Stay tuned!).
- Join Toastmasters. I’ve been a member of Toastmasters International for over 10 years and it remains one of the best low-risk, cost-effective ways to improve your public speaking and leadership skills. Each meeting is divided into different speaking roles – you can sign up to be the timer, the evaluator, the person who counts the filler words (um’s, ah’s), and of course you can sign up to be the speaker. Hands down, it’s the best way to practice standing in front of an audience. If you go to every meeting (either weekly or biweekly) and say something for 30 seconds in front of the audience, you will become a more confident speaker. Each club is different, so visit a few clubs in your area to see which one feels right.
- Seek out speaking opportunities in your community. If you’re nervous about speaking up at work, start looking for speaking opportunities outside of work: in your religious institution, on your nonprofit board, at your child’s school, or in any club you belong to. This can be an easier place to take risks and practice public speaking so that when you do transfer those skills to the workplace, you’ll feel more prepared.
- Seek out speaking opportunities at work. Presenting to clients, speaking at conferences, and leading in-house presentations: many times we can avoid these situations by letting others volunteer first or by assigning those tasks to someone more junior in the organization to “empower them.” Instead of hiding from these opportunities, try volunteering for 3 speaking opportunities in the next 6 months.
- Offer to facilitate meetings at work.If the idea of preparing a speech or being the “expert” on any given topic scares you, volunteer to facilitate a meeting. Don’t be fooled: facilitation still requires a lot of preparation and a lot of in-the-moment focus, but it’s a great way for people to see you at the front of the room and start to consider you for other leadership roles.
- Seek in-house help. Ask your HR liaison what kind of in-house training options are available to you. Many companies offer free training in public speaking and presentation skills; find out if any of those courses are available to you and sign up immediately. One of the benefits of working within large organizations is the professional development resources they often provide at little or no cost to their employees. If you belong to any industry associations, turn to them for skill-based training or request it for their upcoming conference. Public speaking workshops make for a refreshing and interactive breakout session at any industry conference or leadership retreat.
- Bring in an expert trainer. If your company does not offer sufficient in-house opportunities, find out if they have a budget to bring in an executive coach or invite a corporate trainer to offer a series of public speaking workshops for you and your colleagues. Many corporate trainers like myself offer customized, interactive workshops with role play, simulation, and other interactive, engaging exercises to teach you public speaking skills that will be directly relevant to your work environment. Click here to read more about the three different programs I offer, arranged according to your desired outcome: Awareness, Confidence, or Excellence (ACE) in Public Speaking.
Remember that public speaking is a skill, not a talent. Essentially, it involves:
- Recognizing that you have something to say
- Giving yourself permission to speak up
- Identifying what you already do well as a speaker
- Turning your weaknesses into strengths through practice and feedback
The more you practice and receive feedback, the more confident you will feel speaking up. And every single time you stand in front of an audience, you build your skills, your confidence, and your leadership capacity. As the quote by JD Houston implies, think not only of what you want to do in the coming year, but who you need to become in order to do it.