Tag Archives: Public speaking & Toastmasters

Public Speaking: the power of Toastmasters

Public speaking: talking from the front of the room to a group of people, some or all of whom may be strangers -for many people the most petrifying experience imaginable.

I’ve been a member of Toastmasters since 2002 and last year completed all the requirements to receive the top TM award, Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM).  Among other things, this means I’ve given about 100 (mostly) short speeches, each of which was evaluated by another member.

When I joined I was already a semi-experienced speaker and I’d long long ago left the knocking knees behind.  Furthermore, because I’m a writer, pulling together 700 words on a topic of interest to me was no problem either.

But many folks start here:

I joined for five reasons:

  • I am a terrible memorizer and could not leave my “brilliantly crafted” script behind.
  • I feel quite passionate about some of the things I wanted to talk about and have a tendency to burst into tears at in impassioned moments. This is mortifying.
  • I wanted an excuse to organize the nebulous snippets wafting inside my head, because I often don’t know what I think until I’ve had to write about it.
  • I wanted to choose my own topics. As a writer for hire, I’m usually assigned them.
  • I wanted live feedback from warm bodies. When someone reads my written stuff I’m rarely present so I have no clue if they understood my message, if they liked it, where it caught their attention and where it lost them.

After the first ten speeches (which is unfortunately when many people quit their clubs) I had improved on all counts, but had just begun to understand how much PRACTICE good public speaking requires. The advanced manuals offer such a variety of speaking assignments that I’ve been able to expand my skill repertoire into new realms.

Toastmasters’ magic formula includes constructive feedback after every speech. If you’re not speaking, you’re evaluating. This has improved not only my speaking, but also punched up my writing. In some ways you learn even more doing evaluations than speaking because you can clearly see in others what works and what doesn’t.

The memorization thing? Speaking without notes is 100 times more effective than reading a speech, even if you stumble some. It’s so much more direct and communicative.  Think Barack Obama v. Hillary Clinton.

I gave up on memorization after one horrible experience in a humorous speech contest when I was talking about meeting men as an older single woman.  I had dressed up in a hideous baggy dress, rouged my cheeks and put on a Dolly Parton kind of wig.  I delivered my first memorized paragraph, then totally forgot/skipped over the next two paragraphs which were to have set the stage for the action. The audience was baffled and thought the memory lapse was part of my senior citizen schtick.  So no more trying to memorize for me… instead I practice and use a few notes. It’s still a “growing edge.”

The weepy thing? It runs in my family – we’re a mawkish bunch. I try to avoid topics that are sure-fire tear-jerkers, even though they’re sometimes the most persuasive. I take a deep breath when I’m blind-sided by the sudden prick of tears, the constricted throat and the high squeaky voice. In desperation, I extract a length of toilet paper from my sleeve and mop my eyes with a flourish which usually defuses the situation.

Public speaking is such a crucial skill that it should be a requirement for high school graduation. And after that, a year or two in Toastmasters to give you the necessary practice.

It’s never too late! There are thousands of clubs across the country and around the world. Find one near you here. Toastmasters is CHEAP, it’s 80+ years proven, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Public speaking prowess: a liability for Obama??

Prowess: superior skill or ability

“I listened to part of his acceptance speech, but I don’t much care for him;
he speaks too well.”

That’s what one of my relatives said today of Obama’s speech. And she’s a Democrat.

He speaks too well.

What has America come to, that it’s a bad thing when someone as thoughtful and articulate as Obama “speaks too well”?   Have we become that cynical?

Many politicians can deliver an effective speech – even if they have shit for brains – IF they’ve got skillful speech-writers crafting their words.

But Obama is that rare bird who actually writes his own speeches.
You simply cannot write a speech like that without having a well-educated, orderly, creative AND rational mind. His powerful delivery is a plus…
but the ideas came first.

The man can actually think!

America desperately needs a leader with a well-educated, orderly, creative and rational mind – one who doesn’t depend on speech-writers to get the message right.

The job of President requires a person who thinks and expresses himself clearly.  We’ve had eight years of monumentally muddled thinking and garbled speaking.  McCain is another shoot-from-the-hip quipper, with a loose grip on his facts and his memory.

OH PLEASE, NO MORE!

Pandemonium! Barack rocks the house

Pandemonium: wild uproar and noise

When Barack Obama stepped out to speak to the immense crowd (84,000!) gathered at Invesco Field, the uproar went on and on and on and on. [Update: Nielsen reports that more than 38 million people watched the speech on TV – and that doesn’t count the smart viewers who watched on PBS or C-Span. This is more than watched the pagaent that opened the Olympics, more than watched the final “American Idol”- gack]

What a night this was for the Democrats and for Barack Obama.

First of all, he is like a buddha – open heart, big smile, unflappable. How can you not be drawn in by the warmth he exudes so naturally? (Biden too. In fact I can’t recall a more appealing double bill than Obama-Biden.)

Then there’s the matter of his intellect and vision.  WOW.  The speech was certainly one of the greatest I’ve ever heard.

You can find the text online in many places, but here are my favorite excepts (emphases mine):

Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit card bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach.

These challenges are not all of government’s making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.

America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.

Now, I don’t believe that Sen. McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn’t know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under $5 million a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans? How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people’s benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement?

[That promise says] each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect.

It’s a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.

Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves — protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and new science and technology.

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who’s willing to work.

That’s the promise of America — the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper.

And Democrats, we must also admit that fulfilling America’s promise will require more than just money. It will require a renewed sense of responsibility from each of us to recover what John F. Kennedy called our “intellectual and moral strength.” Yes, government must lead on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient. Yes, we must provide more ladders to success for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programs alone can’t replace parents; that government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need.

Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility — that’s the essence of America’s promise.

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America — they have served the United States of America.

So I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.

America, our work will not be easy. The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past. For part of what has been lost these past eight years can’t just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose — our sense of higher purpose. And that’s what we have to restore.

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. [Preach it brother, preach it! This is ballsy talk!]

Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers. This, too, is part of America’s promise — the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.

I know there are those who dismiss such beliefs as happy talk. They claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan Horse for higher taxes and the abandonment of traditional values. And that’s to be expected. Because if you don’t have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from.

This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

Instead, it is that American spirit — that American promise — that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours — a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot. …

Amen.

Proud! to be a Democrat…

Proud: feeling pleasurable satisfaction over an attribute or act by which one’s stature is measured.

I’ve watched as much of the Democratic National Convention as I could, given other pressing commitments. As screwed up as we can be as a party, we are so far ahead of the other brand in brains, integrity, wisdom, compassion, policy, ideas, etc etc that I find it hard to believe that any sane and sentient human being would vote for the other brand.

On Tuesday Hillary Clinton finally convinced me that she could be a strong leader – but we already have  a remarkable candidate. Gov. Schweitzer, Gov. Amy Klobucher and Rep Kucinich were terrific.

Last night the drama built and built as the states went through the roll call, declaring the number of delegates pledged to each candidate.  Of course Obama was way ahead, but they kept going until (strangely) New Mexico ceded their votes to the next state, Missouri, and Missouri ceded to Illinois…. and Illinois ceded to New York (a total of 282 delegates at stake by this time) and….

Hillary stepped forward for New York to move that the roll call be stopped and the convention move to accept Obama by acclamation.  Cheers, shouts, tears, roars.  And so the so-called “disunity” came to an end.  It was a great moment.

Later Senator John Kerry kicked butt the way we wished he had four years ago – what a terrific speech – comparing “Senator” McCain with “Candidate” McCain as prime examples of flip-flopping. Senator Joe Biden won my heart with his kind presence PLUS some great examples of where McCain was wrong and Obama was right. President Bill Clinton showed us why he is still the Big Dog,

I’ve been in tears a lot the past few days. Happy tears.  Tonight is the NEW Big Dog. Obama!

I will watch what I can stomach of the other brand’s convention next week. They’ve got their work cut out for them….

Presentation pie

Pie: what unexpectedly lands on your face when you’re trying to be cool.

I was the “preacher” stand-in on Sunday, speaking at a Unitarian church about 60 miles from here while their minister was on vacation. It was the second time I’ve presented this particular sermon. The first time, about five years ago, was at my home church and it went over very well.

In the ensuing years I have gotten much more skillful not only at speaking but at crafting a tight speech/sermon. I reworked the old speech, lightened it up with some humorous quips and images, and added a rousing call to action at the end. It was definitely improved, so I felt confident all would be well.

After what happened on Sunday I can tell I need to go back to improv class, because those skills would have been handy.

Before I was to speak, the Sunday School director invited the kids to come forward for story time.  She started telling them a tale that seemed surprisingly similar to what I was about to talk about. At first I thought, “This is good – I can refer back to a couple of her ideas when I speak.”

But she went on and on, pretty much summarizing in kid’s language what I was going to talk about. As she finished she looked back at me and said, “Heheh, I hope I didn’t spoil your story….”

In Toastmasters we are warned in our introductions never to give away the speaker’s main points. For example you might say, “Today Mary will tell us the story of Goldilocks.” But you’d never say, “Today Mary is going to tell about how a little girl happened into a bear’s home while they were out and had to try every chair, bowl, and bed before she found one that was just right. Mary?”

OK, this woman’s version of the story lacked the depth, detail and brilliance of mine, and she missed some of the juicy parts, but still, she left me holding a half-eaten sandwich.

So I got up to speak and noticed that this was a crowd that likes to keep its distance. Most folks sat as far back as possible; the front five rows were empty. I thought I was in Missouri with the “show-me” congregation. Crossed arms, implacable faces.

Still, I wasn’t worried because most audiences respond fairly quickly to the warmth of my manner (not bragging; it’s true).

Ah yes. The congregation soaked up my words like a sponge. That is to say, my words landed on the congregants and disappeared without a trace.  It was like talking to acoustical tile.

I plowed on regardless and I guess it was all right. Next time I’ll bring bagels to toss into the crowd at the end of every page of text. That would get a rise out of them. But if it didn’t I’d add lox.

Afterwards I talked with a friend who had belonged to my church before she moved to this community. She noted that there were a lot of old folks in the group and said that this was their usual “response” to the sermon.

It made me really appreciate the pleasure of speaking to a responsive audience.  My home congregation really hangs in there with the minister or any guest speaker.   At Toastmasters we are totally attentive to and appreciative of the speaker, even if it’s crap. We know that soon enough we’ll be up front and want that kind of support for ourselves.

On behalf of speakers and teachers everywhere, the next time you’re in an audience, do your part by giving the person up front the gift of your full attention. Laugh, frown, cry in response. You’re there anyway; might as well be fully present.

Prematurely proud Powerpoint presenter

Last week I was so pleased with myself for my maiden voyage of simultaneously talking and powerpointing  for my feng shui class that perhaps I was overly presumptuous in calling myself a  Powerpoint Potentate: Presentation Priestess.

Well, at least I did not use clip art. I did not use overly wordy slides. I did not use wild wipes and noisy animations. I knew those were non-nos. And I had some very lovely photographs to illustrate some of my points.

But now, having poked around a bit on the web for Powerpoint pointers, and discovering two of Garr Reynolds‘ websites, I see I have miles to go.  I’m not talking about doing fancy photoshopped art, jazzy fonts, fades, etc.  It’s about simplicity, using the least possible material in the most impactful way. (His blog is called Presentation Zen – way cool. He has a book by the same name which I just ordered. I know when I need to eat humble pie.)

In one set of three slides he shows about gender inequality in Japan. First example is typical headline and bullet points. Next example says, “72% of the part-time workforce in Japan are women,”  over a dark background with a woman off to the side.   Final example (same background of woman) in HUGE text : just says 72%.   Pow!  The slide emphasizes the message graphically, but YOU are the messenger.

I’m excited about improving my skill with inspiration like this.

Procrastination #2: the Powerpoint Presentation

Procrastination: putting off intentionally something that should be done,
from the Latin, pro (forward) and crastinus (of tomorrow)

I am giving a talk tonight at Toastmasters, a dry run if you will, of a much longer presentation on feng shui I’m doing next week.  I can talk on this topic, no problem. I know my stuff.

So why oh why have I put off preparations until just last night (not that I’ve not been thinking about it, obsessing, even)?  It’s because I’ll be working with my new projector and Powerpoint for the first time.

I am actually an accomplished geek so I’ve been surprised at my reluctance to put this presentation together.  I figured out the PPt stuff easily – made a bunch of attractive simple slides last night.

What has held me back is fear of new territory – simultaneous talking and technology.  I’m one of those people who has to turn off the car radio when navigating unfamiliar roads – I may even be someone who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.  But since I don’t chew gum, I haven’t tested this possibility.

I am writing this post when I should be loading the presentation onto my laptop, hooking up the projector and seeing what happens….  structured procrastination, as Ken Perry would say.

Practice, Persevere, Purge: wisdom from Ira Glass

So you want to be a writer? Storyteller? Screen or radio writer?

Ira Glass of This American Life (a masterful collector of uniquely gripping radio stories -now also on TV) has great advice for you.  Boiled down, it amounts to three of my favorite p-words:

  • Practice (write or record a lot of crap, and maybe occasionally some good stuff).
  • Persevere (do it some more, and then some more and then more after that).
  • Purge (you’ll produce lots of crap and will need to let most of it go).

But he says this with much more pizzazz than I do, so you must watch these four videos on You-Tube.  REALLY. They’re only five minutes each and packed with wisdom.

Start here – #1: Building blocks of the story. The power of the anecdote. Raising questions and then answering them. Reflecting on the point. Every preacher or public speaker should listen to this one.

Then here #2  Finding a decent story – do lots of work then ruthlessly purge the crap.

Then here #3:  How your work almost always, for YEARS, falls short of your taste, your vision.  But do it anyway. A lot. Persevere. 

And finally #4  Two common pitfalls.

In Peshewar, Pakistan: public speaking with Toastmasters

Toastmasters is an amazing organization with clubs in 92 countries around the world. Apparently a new club is being birthed as we speak in Peshawar Pakistan.  Map here.

The name “Toastmasters” is quaint (the organization has been around for more than 80 years), but their mission is thoroughly modern: helping people learn the arts of speaking, listening and thinking – vital skills that promote self-actualization, enhance leadership potential, foster human understanding and contribute to the betterment of mankind.

In a society like Pakistan this is tremendously important work –people who can speak, listen, and think constructively will be invaluable citizens.  I am going to follow this group with great interest. I send them all best wishes.

Perseverance and public speaking: Arianna Huffington edition

Today is Arianna Huffington‘s 58th birthday – I know this thanks to Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac, which I get in email form every day.

You can read his post here, but I found two parts of her story especially compelling because they were all about having a goal and persevering despite obstacles. Ath this point in time she is an incredibly skillful public speaker – articulate, witty and quick.

Background: she’s Greek, born in Athens.

One day she saw in a magazine a picture of Cambridge University, and she decided that she wanted to go to school there. Many of her friends and family members ridiculed her, but her mother strongly encouraged her daughter, looked for a scholarship that she could apply for, found cheap airline tickets from Athens to London, and took the teenage Arianna for a visit to the campus. It rained the whole time, and they didn’t get to meet with any school officials, but she imagined herself going to school there. A few years later, she applied and was granted a scholarship.

In college she joined the debating team, a rather uncommon extracurricular activity for a young woman at Cambridge at that time. At first, she wasn’t very skilled, and years later said, “Sometimes I was called to speak after midnight because I was so bad.” But she prepared for each debate as if she were the featured speaker and she began to improve—so much so that in her final year at Cambridge, she was voted president of the debating society. She was the first non-British citizen to earn this position and only the third woman in the school’s history.