Tuesday, April 10, 2007

So you think you can speak?

On Saturday I sat in on one of the early stages of the Toastmasters International Speech Contest. For those of you that aren't aware of this colossal annual event, let me set the stage.

25,000 people enter from over 14 countries across the globe.

Contestants write and deliver an original 5-7 minute speech on any topic.

The contest has six levels.

At level 5 you have to write and deliver an entirely new 5-7 minute speech.

At level 6 (the Finals) you have to write and deliver yet another totally new speech. So, you can't just be a one trick pony, you have to show that you can rock the house with three different speeches. Think of the contest as "American Idol" for speakers without the snide remarks from Simon Cowell. Previous winners include folks like Cavett Robert, the founder of the National Speakers Association.

What's amazing about this contest is that forces speakers to get the most out of themselves and their speeches. If you're looking for some good entertainment that's free to public, check out http://www.toastmasters.org/ and find a contest in your area. The finals are in Phoenix in August.

That said, I observed several things in the speeches (in Round 3) that are instructional for anyone who does public speaking. Some things to avoid, some things to do.

#1. Make sure you have the floor before you start speaking. This may sound obvious, but on more than one occasion the speaker was so eager to begin talking that he started while the last few claps of the welcoming applause were still audible.

Solution: Smile at the audience and wait at least 2-3 seconds in silence before you start talking. That way you'll have 100% of their attention.

#2. Avoid distracting/reflective/sparkly jewelry. One woman (who happened to be quite good) was sporting round silver earrings the size of half dollars that caught the light like a giant radio telescope. Combined with her head movements I found myself distracted by the light flashes emitting from her ears...at one point I thought she might be signalling "SOS" or something.

Solution: Accessories are great, but do a quick mirror check in two different settings to test the reflective aspect of your jewelry. The last thing anyone wants is for your sense of fashion to take attention away from you and your message.

#3. No one cares. Unless you tell them why they should. There, I said it. The contestants were telling lots of amazing stories, but very few of them took the extra step to involve the audience. While I was listening to these stories I found myself asking, "So what?" I'm glad you got through that difficult trial, but what does that mean for me?

Solution: As you tell a story (especially a long one), be sure to invite your audience to join you mentally by asking rhetorical questions. For example, when you mention that you got fired from your dream job, don't just plow forward. Pause for a moment and ask the audience if they have ever had a similar experience. Then, they'll be more likely to stay with you.

#4. Get out of the phone booth. Despite the fact that many of the speakers had good gestures, a lot of them were still trapped in the proverbial phone booth. Picture the speaker standing inside a phone booth (for those of you under 25, phone booths were where we used to place calls before the advent of cell phones). I could tell that a lot of the contestants wanted to move around the platform, but held back for some reason. They'd take a half-step here and a half-step there reminiscent of an 8th grader awkwardly attempting to do the Fox Trot at his first cotillion dance. Unfortunately, these kinds of movements communicate nervousness almost as loudly as shaky hands.

Solution: When you feel the urge to move, that's your body saying "Listen up, Public Speaker Person, I've got some nervous energy here and I'd really like to move around a little. Would that be okay?" When this happens, heed the call. If you have an 6' x 10' platform, use it. It will also help your audience pay more attention.

Time to Hit Your Stride...

Your Turn #1: The next time you give a speech. What questions can you ask along the way to engage your audience so that they feel included?

Your Turn #2: The stage is your canvas. How are you going to use the full footprint of the platform to deliver your next presentation?

Happy speaking,

Steve Hughes
Speaker - Trainer - Denture Wearer

No comments: