Warren Buffet, one of the world’s wealthiest men, asserts that public speaking is the single greatest skill to boost your career. Even if you’re not a business tycoon, the advice still rings true: improving public speaking skills is one of the most fundamental ways seller-doers can hone their business development skills.
I define a seller-doer as “a billable professional who takes purposeful action to help generate revenue for their firm.” In professional services, purposeful action may be speaking at conferences, taking part in interview presentations, and conducting lunch and learns.
Competency as a speaker can also help make you more effective when presenting at project or public meetings or even at a professional association chapter meeting.
What Level of Speaker Are You and Where Do You Need to Be?
The public speaking skills you need to develop will depend on your current capability. It will also depend on what speaking opportunities will help you best serve today’s clients and attract tomorrow’s.
- Novice speakers are still nervous about speaking to groups. Novice public speakers should aim to overcome their fear of public speaking and learn the fundamentals — keeping their focus while picking up on audience engagement. Novice speakers are generally comfortable with small groups; a good place for them to practice might be an internal meeting where the faces are familiar and the stakes are low.
- Intermediate speakers are comfortable with an audience and are consistently effective. Intermediate speakers should aim to be more agile when communicating complex ideas, and to pivot to a new topic if something isn’t working. These speakers are more comfortable with larger audiences; they might be good candidates to host lunch and learns or technical training.
- Advanced speakers project confidence and can speak with little preparation on topics they know well. Most AEC roles don’t require expert-level presenters, but advanced speakers looking to step up their game should focus on making their presentations more engaging. These speakers are often the best key presenters for interview presentations.
So where do you fit in and where do you need to land? If you’re going to have a substantive role in short-list interview presentations or be an industry thought leader presenting at several conferences a year, you may aim to become an advanced speaker.
If you’ll primarily be presenting at public meetings, conducting lunch and learns, and occasionally presenting on technical topics at conferences, then intermediate may be a good enough landing point for you. Regardless of where you’re headed, if you’re a novice, it’s time to get started – with purpose – to improve.
The best way to become a better speaker is to practice. Books about public speaking are ineffective teachers since they can’t give you the depth of wisdom you’ll gain through experience. Once you’ve learned a few tips, the fastest and most effective way to become a better speaker is to just do it.
With that in mind, our strategies to build your skill and comfort with public speaking are:
- Join Toastmasters
- Fail Small
Toastmasters is a nonprofit organization that helps people become more confident speakers—and with more than 16,600 clubs in 143 countries, it’s likely that there’s a chapter near you. Because the organization is 100 years old, it has carefully crafted and road tested a process for helping people succeed at speaking.
Although many people join Toastmasters to overcome their fear of speaking, others join to become better leaders, more competent speakers, or even to join the ranks of professional speakers.
For a low semi-annual fee, you’ll be able to meet weekly or bi-weekly to practice your speaking skills and do some self-study and speech preparation in your outside time. The structure of the program ensures that people get a chance to practice not only speeches, but also writing, impromptu speaking, storytelling, and more!
You can also get involved in committees and leadership roles to develop marketing, interpersonal, and leadership skills. Whatever role you decide on, Toastmasters’ members are always genuinely nice and deliver feedback in a kind, constructive manner. As a bonus, many it’s fun! It’s easiest to learn in a safe, fun environment, and Toastmasters delivers on this, for speakers of all skill levels.
Seek out low-risk opportunities to speak, whether you’re trying to overcome your fear of speaking or develop from a more solid foundation. The types of preparation that will help you exude confidence are the small, everyday ways you can practice speaking, whether you’re asking a question in a large meeting or hosting a brown bag lunch.
Small steps mean practicing the basics; for example, learning how to speak succinctly instead of rambling. In general, it’s good to aim for thoughtful contributions that make people glad you stood up to speak.
If you’re a bit rusty at public speaking, you’ll inevitably make mistakes, but from those failures will come important growth that will help you succeed when it really matters. You’ll thank yourself later when you’re facing a more high-stakes situation, like an interview presentation for an important client.
Volunteering in leadership roles is a win-win: the community benefits from your service, and you benefit from the opportunities to practice public speaking. Community service and volunteer leadership roles give you valuable training, as they often involve a public speaking component. When you’re called on to use your public speaking skills, you’ll receive informal training that will hone them through experience alone. No matter what your current skill level is, you’ll improve with practice.
Volunteer roles can take many forms, including coaching youth sports, taking part on the board of a nonprofit, or presenting in a public meeting. Whatever organization you volunteer for, make it something you are passionate about.
If you tend to look up to principals in your firm who speak with confidence and think, “I could never do what they do,” you might be surprised at how people got where they are today. Many advanced speakers started out as nervous, novice speakers. Practice is the key to improving your public speaking skills—never turn down a chance to speak.
Recommendations for Further Reading:
If you’re a new speaker trying to overcome your fear of public speaking, this HBR article outlines a unique way to use kindness to your advantage: https://hbr.org/2019/09/to-overcome-your-fear-of-public-speaking-stop-thinking-about-yourself
Looking for a few quick tips? inc.com has a list of 20 general tips that help you prepare for a presentation: https://www.inc.com/brent-gleeson/20-tips-for-mastering-art-of-public-speaking.html
For some guidance on a specific type of speaking engagement, Toastmasters has public speaking tips for awards, sales pitches, technical briefings, and more: https://www.toastmasters.org/resources/public-speaking-tips
Finally, listen to some speakers in action with this TED Talks “Before public speaking…” playlist: https://www.ted.com/playlists/226/before_public_speaking