[Toastmasters] Top Presentation Tips

billowing curtains in the window. Classic.

Random Observation/Comment #251: The number one fear in the US is public speaking. Number two is death. This means that in a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than performing the eulogy.

Ever since that embarrassing speech during high school, I’ve made it my duty to prevent future occasions of embarrassment. I tried my best through public speaking workshops and getting myself out there as much as possible, but it didn’t really work that well. And believe me, I’ve been to a lot of presentation workshops – a lot of them – but the most important ones were very interactive with real-time feedback. (Actually, the most useful one was backpacking in Europe.)

To prepare for an important project at work, I had a 360 speech evaluation class, which inspired me to write this entry.  This 2.5 hour class of 5 students was basically a full analysis of good and bad habits with real-live feedback on improvement and next steps.  I wanted to highlight this class because most workshops I take on public speaking are usually with a large crowd and repeat a lot of obvious, but unpracticed items of focus.  It doesn’t always give hints that apply to me, as my strengths and weaknesses may be different from others.

The main goal of the workshop was not to make an expert speaker overnight – it was to pinpoint one or two habits that could be improved upon or unlearned, and then give tips and tricks to work on this after the workshop.  I found this particular format especially useful because it kept me focused on the big ticket items that would make the most difference.  For me, it was my vocal variety and energy.  I didn’t know this, but I don’t act enough in my speeches. I need to practice on speaking with more deliberate gravitas and bringing the audience into my story with pauses and enthusiasm.  My voice just needs the deep projection from the lungs that delivers the overall message with strength and authority.

The best part of the workshop was the 360 review with the camcorder.  We introduced ourselves and did a 30 second speech in front of the crowd. Right afterwards, we watched it again and specifically pointed out the positive and negative points with specific focuses on things to improve. Immediately afterwards, we did the whole thing over again with a focus to improve that one or two major points.

Anyway, here were some of the main weak points and recommended solutions:

  • I am afraid to be judged in front of everyone, so I get nervous.  This happens to everyone, but the real key is to know what you’re talking about extremely well and then stop caring what other people think about you and your image.  I was told not to pretend that everyone is naked, but to pretend that I’m naked.
  • I fidget a lot and I don’t know what to do with my hands. Stand with feet shoulder width apart, properly planted with a strong posture – do not lean to one side.  Straighten the spine and speak with the air from your chest cavity instead of your throat so you can project your voice – what sounds like screaming is really a normal voice. Use your hands in a natural manner and especially think of ways to emphasize the content in your speech.
  • Some people say I sound childish in my speeches. The childish or high school tone naturally comes when people end with a high tone. In this case, everything sounds like a Blonde question when it should sound like firm statements.  For example, saying your own name should end in a low tone with a strong, clear, and audible paced voice.  Use words that represent your level of professionalism and avoid using too many filler words like “umm” or “like” by completely pausing and gathering thoughts before speaking again.
  • I don’t have enough energy in my speech so it doesn’t sound genuine or convincing. This is very common, but it can only be improved by copying the emphasis made with acting.  If you can, take an acting course. If not, listen to more audiobooks and really listen to the pauses and tones to note how they tell the story and paint the picture with using all of the punctuation.  Practice this while you tell stories at the dinner table or with a group of friends.
  • I have trouble making eye contact because it’s really weird with my Asian culture. Get over the Asian culture thing – it’s not rude to make eye contact. It actually seems like you’re lying and deceitful if you don’t.  During a speech, try to segment your talk into conveying particular sections of the speech as ideas to one person.  Once you’re done with an idea, make eye contact with someone else around the room and convey the next idea.  This should be around 3 or 4 seconds per person.
  • I spend too much time thinking about the next thing to say to pay attention to these little tips and tricks. To improve upon this, you just need to know your material better. Either do this, or make the presentation techniques second nature.  If you are engaging within a one-on-one conversation, you can basically mimic this in front of people once you get over the whole judgment thing.

The best advice I had was to actually practice these techniques in everyday conversations. Try to tell more stories in front of your friends and be more social. This will help you with the eye contact and confident tone of voice.  Once you get a hang of that, try to add some vocal variety and use some hand gestures or impersonations to get the idea across.  Also remember to remove those “umm”, “y’know”, “like”, “but… uhh…”, and “so…”s in normal conversation – instead, fill them with pauses and think of the next thing to say without dragging the sentence onward.  I never said it would be easy.

If you want to improve, listen to audiobooks, watch TED talks for amazing presentation deliveries, practice with friends, and join Toastmasters. Oh yeah, don’t forget to backpack through Europe J.

~See Lemons Learn to Present