Toastmasters, some say, is the best-kept secret in town. And some people who join imagine they’re in a secret group, where everything that happens in the club stays in the club. Quite the contrary: Toastmasters is not a secret club to prepare and present pretty speeches, but is instead a training platform for going out into the “real world” and benefiting from your improved communication and leadership skills.
Many of the first skills you learn as you start preparing and delivering speeches are highly relevant to the professional world. And you can start applying these skills right away.
Consider the following example: What is often the first question asked in a job interview? “Tell me something about yourself.” The interviewer already has your résumé so what’s the point of the question? Because the answer tells the recruiter a great deal about you: your language level, your grasp of the subject and how it pertains to the situation at hand, your self-confidence, your personality and how you may fit with the existing team. Are you using the right technical terms? Are you sitting properly, using appropriate body language, wearing the right clothes and addressing the interviewer with courtesy and decorum? Are you able to persuade the interviewer that you have the right skill set for the job?
Once you’re hired, will you be able to handle the job and the people on the team? How much of an impact will you have on others? Are you an effective team player and a potential leader? Are you a good listener? Everything you do in Toastmasters can help you improve aspects of your professional life. Here are some examples of what you learn early on in your Toastmasters journey.
Introducing Yourself—The first speech in the Toastmasters education program is about introducing yourself to your club members and evaluating your current level of speaking skills. As you refine it further, parts of this first “icebreaker” speech is something you can use for job interviews, for social introductions at parties, even for potential investors—it’s your elevator pitch for the right occasion.
Structuring Your Material—What do you want to say and why do you want to say it? If, for example, you are presenting information to your colleagues, make sure to cover the main points they will need to hear to make informed decisions. Use data, statistics, visual aids and handouts, if necessary. Asking for a budget review? The same principles apply. A structured approach, with a beginning, middle and end, will make your presentation more powerful.
Using Appropriate Language—The language used in our conversations with our friends, colleagues and clients reflect on us. If you are addressing your industry peers, use language appropriate to your field. But avoid industry jargon when talking to customers and the general public. Always be mindful of using language that is appropriate for the audience and the occasion.
Slow your speech and enunciate each word carefully when you are onstage or even on a conference call.
Words are powerful. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s classic description of democracy as “the government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Or Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words about violence: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Making a Statement with Body Language—Body language is one of the most influential aspects of public speaking. The way you walk up to the lectern, where you place your notes and how you face the audience all project your confidence level. Facial expressions, posture and use of stage space are all part of learning effective body language. This skill will boost your presence in front of all types of audiences.
Using Vocal Variety—Speaking clearly is critical, and pronouncing each word distinctly is key to achieving that effect, especially if you work in a multinational or multicultural organization. Slow your speech and enunciate each word carefully when you are onstage, and even when you are on a conference call. Vocal variety keeps you from sounding monotonous and helps keep the audience engaged in your message.
Being Prepared—Ever attended an office meeting and walked out wondering what it was about? This is an all-too-common problem. One way to stand out in your workplace is to be prepared every time you walk into a meeting. Have your data ready, with graphs or even handouts. Research both sides of the issue so that you can make counter-arguments. Taking notes during every meeting keeps you ready for action and makes you the go-to person in the office. Just as in the club environment, make sure your material fits the time available.
The very act of writing a speech, drafting and revising according to the objectives, adds to your written communication skills, resulting in better emails and reports.
Using Visual Aids—Presentations today are a routine part of professional life, so learn how to do them with the right amount of panache. The size and composition of the audience, the size and acoustics of the meeting room, the time limit for the presentation and the occasion (office review/industry seminar etc.), all require different visual aids and adequate preparation. Avoid suicide by PowerPoint—prepare your presentation first, then choose the appropriate visual aids. Whether you are using the lectern, notes, LCD technology or a teleprompter, be prepared with your materials and be able to use them comfortably.
Being Persuasive—Every single team leader, every single project manager, every single CEO has to persuade team members to do things above and beyond their regular work. Are you going in for budget cuts or asking for more resources for your department? Tailor your arguments accordingly, keep your language simple and make sure you are clear about what you want the audience to do after your presentation, with a clear call to action.
The skills you learn early in Toastmasters will help you in many ways. And the more you continue to practice and improve in your club, the more success you will experience!
Nina John, DTM is the director of coaching firm Envy Communications. She has served as a District 82 governor and is currently a member of Chennai Toastmasters club in Chennai, India.