For the Novice: Tips from a Toastmaster
Ten things I’ve learned
from 10 years in Toastmasters.
By Dianne Lawson
Looking back to my first few speeches, I am happy I stuck with Toastmasters. My first few speeches were full of “ahs” and “ums,” distracting mannerisms and rustling papers. I also talked so softly that few people could hear me. After 10 years in Toastmasters, I’ve grown a lot. These are the most important things I have learned:
1. Eliminate audible pauses. One of the best ways to improve your speaking is to eliminate unnecessary noises, such as “ums” and “ahs.” People often say them when they are thinking of what to say next. The first step to reducing these is to become aware of them.
My club focuses on eliminating audible pauses. The Ah Counter at our meetings gently hits a key on a child’s toy piano to alert speakers of any pauses that can be heard by the audience. This practice helps us become aware of what we are saying the moment we are saying it. When I was a new member, I was astonished every time the piano was struck. I was not aware that I was saying “um.” Even after 10 years, I still say it occasionally, usually when I have not been attending Toastmasters meetings regularly.
Audible pauses are distracting, annoying and make you sound unsure of yourself. The more prepared you are and the better you know your speech, the fewer audible pauses you will have.
2. Get rid of distracting mannerisms. If a speaker repetitively moves his hands back and forth, I start watching the hands and have a hard time listening to what he is saying. A great way to find out if you’re making distracting motions is to video record yourself while you give a speech. It is even more helpful to watch the tape recording on fast forward to see if you do the same things over and over.
I remember the first time I watched myself in a recording and saw that I was nervously flexing one of my hands as it dangled by my side. I had no idea I was doing that! When I watched the recording, all I could see was my hand.
Another nervous mannerism I have is to brush my hair out of my eyes. Other people play with their glasses or jewelry. Asking others to comment on how well you are doing in this area and paying attention yourself can help you get rid of annoying movements.
3. Don’t call attention to notes. If you have papers in front of you during a speech, the less the audience sees them, the better. Do not staple notes together. When you are finished with one page, slide it over to the other side of the lectern; do not flip the page over. If you do this noiselessly, the audience may not realize that you are using notes. My nervousness at first caused me to rustle my notes. The longer I was in Toastmasters, the less I needed to rely on notes and now I rarely use them. When I do need to use notes, I try not to draw attention to them.
4. Speak at an appropriate volume for the room. Of all of these tips, this is the hardest one for me. I have a naturally soft voice and people often can’t hear me. The only way I have figured out how loudly I am speaking is to have someone tell me. Since my Toastmasters group usually meets in rooms about the same size, I have learned to speak at a volume that others can hear in those rooms. The challenge comes when I am in a larger room or speaking with a microphone.
It helps if I arrive early at the speaking location and have a trusted person in the back of the room telling me if he or she can hear me. I then try to speak at the right volume during my speech. That same person can sit in the back of the room and let me know if I am speaking loudly enough by using prearranged cues.
I once asked my husband to sit in the back of a large room with instructions to stick his thumb up in the air if I needed to speak louder. The system would have worked if I would have remembered to look at him to see if his thumb was up or not! He said he kept his thumb up in the air during my entire speech and that I never looked at him.
5. Practice giving your speech within a specified time limit. When you practice at home, have a clock or watch in front of you. In some clubs, the audience may interrupt a speech because the speaker has gone on too long. This is horrible for the speaker and the audience. It’s even worse, however, when the speaker loses a contest for not finishing within the allotted time frame.
During humorous speeches, be aware that the larger the audience, the more often people will probably laugh and the more time their laughter will take. I lost two humorous speech contests because I went overtime. When I practiced the speeches at home, they lasted four minutes. Incredibly, at division and district level contests, those same speeches were more than seven minutes and 30 seconds. Not all of the extra time was used up because I was so funny, but because I spent too much time standing silently, milking laughs and playing up to the audience.
It can be very hard to judge how much the audience will laugh, so it is imperative to watch for the warning lights and adjust your speech accordingly. One speaker I saw took off his own watch and knew where he was supposed to be even earlier than the warning lights. It worked for him and he did not go over time.
6. Never apologize. When a speaker starts off a speech by apologizing for his newness or lack of preparation, the speech starts off on a sour note. In an ideal world, the speaker should always be well prepared, and if not, should not set up the members of the audience to expect a poor speech. A member of my club says, “Toastmasters means never having to say you’re sorry.”
7. Enter contests. Entering contests is probably the quickest way to improve your skills. I have learned more from competing in contests than in any other aspect of Toastmasters, because I can watch the other contestants. When someone wins, I always observe something worth imitating. And when someone loses, I see what to avoid.
8. Arrive early when you are speaking. It helps you to relax if you know you will be on time and that the room will meet your needs. Once I ran late for a club meeting. I drove fast, ran into the meeting and arrived perspiring and full of adrenaline. I did not have time to calm down and nervously gave a poor speech.
If you will be using a microphone, try it out ahead of time, so that you will be comfortable with it and know that it works. Ask if you must stay in a certain area to prevent problems with the microphone. It wouldn’t hurt to walk around the area, talking into the microphone to check for any feedback or a lost connection.
9. Read your speech out loud several times beforehand. If you are not sure how to pronounce a word, look it up in a dictionary. Make sure you will be able to read smoothly. Practice reading the first part of each sentence and then looking up at the end of it to make eye contact.
10. Enjoy yourself. Remember that Toastmasters is a safe place to learn. So try to calm your nerves before giving a speech by taking deep breaths and then relaxing and doing the best you can. Your Toastmasters club members want you to be successful.
The worst that can happen is that you will make mistakes that you can learn from. Remember: The best way to help your audience enjoy your speech is to enjoy giving it. If you’re having fun, they will too!
Dianne Lawson, ATMS, is a member of Heartland Club in Topeka, Kansas.