I have always been outgoing and talkative, but speaking in front of a group of people wasn’t always easy. Whether it was 10 people or 100, the butterflies were there. Will I say something stupid, or stumble over my words? Would I talk too fast, or too softly? Most people have these thoughts running through their minds, including me.
In mid-2002, I was concluding my MBA and wanted to continue the professional development journey. Something on the ‘growth bucket-list’ was enhancing my public speaking skills.
A former colleague of mine from 20+ years ago was a gifted communicator and presenter. I asked her one day, what she would recommend developing my speaking and communication skills. She had two quick answers. If you want to get good at public speaking and feel more confident in front of a group of people, you will need to join Toastmasters, and keep practicing, and practicing. “How long will that take”, I asked? She said, “It depends on how good you wish to become, but it can take years”. Wow, years, I thought! I decided to start with the first meeting, and 14 years later I realized that I learned so much!
Many of you likely have heard of Toastmasters, but what is it exactly?
Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. The organization’s membership exceeds 300,000 in more than 15,800 clubs in 149 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people from diverse backgrounds become more confident speakers, communicators, and leaders.
The Toastmasters Journey Begins
In September 2002 I joined my first and only Toastmasters Club. (Dawnbreakers Toastmasters). We met at 7:00am in downtown Edmonton. I was a morning person (I still am today), and driving downtown, parking at the office, and walking to the Toastmasters meeting became a Thursday morning routine for years. (I was a member for 14 years in total, before I left my amazing club and the incredible benefits of Toastmasters).
I was ready to join and as fate would have it, the first person I met was Peter Kossowan, who became my Toastmasters mentor during those 14 years, and Peter is still a dear friend today. The photo to the left includes (Myself, Peter Kossowan, and Kris Schinke, my colleague at X5 Management).
During my Toastmasters journey I did 60+ prepared speeches and hundreds of impromptu speaking. (No preparation, just the need to think on your feet). FYI…Peter, Kris and I have completed our DTM (Distinguished Toastmaster). The Distinguished Toastmaster award is the highest Toastmasters International bestows. There are so few Toastmasters globally that actually obtain their DTM, so we are grateful to be in that group. Another notable claim by Peter Kossowan is that he holds a Toastmasters International record for starting more clubs than any other person. At latest count he has started over 175 clubs and his efforts were recognized years back and he was featured on the cover of the Toastmasters International magazine.
When did I realize I liked public speaking?
This question comes up from time to time as most people would say that they don’t like or enjoy public speaking. (One of the biggest fears that people have).
The quick answer to when I realized that I liked it was when I became ‘good at public speaking’ with years and years of practice. It wasn’t just one day, it evolved over time. It is a skill that I continue to hone today, and my professional and business community creates opportunities for me to do it often. This may be in a boardroom with ten people, or at the Edmonton Convention Centre with 250 people, as an emcee.
Suggestions for those afraid to speak to an audience
Join Toastmasters and practice, practice, practice. Getting good at public speaking and reducing the fear is no fast-track process. It takes years. Having said that, for many people they simply want to get more comfortable, and it is rarely something that they will do professionally. Toastmasters is still the answer and I always recommend committing to at least one-year and remain active in your club. In many cases, like me, when the one-year mark rolls around, you are more likely to continue as you have momentum and confidence. Years ago, I recall my dear friend and mentor, Arnold McLaughlin saying, “practice is important, but perfect-practice makes you better!!” This is the case with my Toastmasters training and mentorship.
Why speaking well is important for a leader
In our profession at X5 Management, we support leaders and teams with Training, Coaching, and Strategic Planning Solutions. On a daily and weekly basis, we work with many great leaders. Some are very strong speakers and presenters, and some are less effective. It is key to influencing others, be it your prospective client, or work team. Confidence in speaking and presenting for leaders matters! Most don’t spend enough time preparing for a key meeting and some could use public speaking coaching support to polish up their delivery. Any leader can do this, but they must invest the time!
Whether you are in a room with 3 people or 100 people, body language matters a great deal. Are you standing straight and confident, not moving too much, or too fast? Do your eyes connect with your audience, not your shoes? Body Language is an important topic, and people see before they hear, so effective body language is critical to an effective speech that engages the audience.
Learning to speak effectively, even if in front of one person, is an excellent skill for sales, negotiations, and so many other roles the average leader might encounter. As a matter of fact, think about all the encounters you may have on an average day at work. I suspect there are quite a few!
As an emcee, how to prepare
Over the years, I have been an emcee for many events and the preparation is critical to the overall success of the role and to the event. The smallest details matter a great deal. Things like: How to pronounce someone’s name? When are the breaks? What time does everyone need to return after lunch? The list goes on and on, and you become the host, air traffic controller and the detail person.
During the event, your energy is high, and your voice is strong and confident. It is what people expect and appreciate.
Have you ever had a leadership coach?
Is humour important for public speaking?
I always try to thread in tasteful humour when possible. I do so with respect and mindfulness of who is in the audience. I may even make fun of myself to keep things light. If you include humour and it intentionally embarrasses someone in the audience……don’t do it! Getting a laugh at the expense of someone else lacks class!!
Engaging the audience is my number one priority when speaking in public. Whether it is a facilitation session with a group of executives or presenting to a large audience, connecting and engaging with your audience is key.
My favorite speakers
There are many great speakers and presenters. Barrack Obama was an incredibly strong speaker and commands attention with his confident voice, and perfectly timed pauses during any public address that he delivered.
John C. Maxwell, author, and coach, is a brilliant speaker with a deep and powerful voice that is a delight to listen to.
One that is closer to home for me, is Ron Tite, from Toronto. He was in comedy years ago and can captivate an audience with his quick wit and perfectly timed ‘impact statement’. In my opinion, Ron is one of the best in Canada.
Of course, a plug for my wife Bonita Lehmann (left), who has also completed her DTM with Toastmasters in 2021. The Distinguished Toastmaster award is the highest award Toastmasters bestows.
Am I a professional speaker?
There are many people who are deemed ‘professional speakers’ and in my case, I do regard myself as one. First, I am a member of CAPS, (Canadian Association of Professional Speakers). To be clear, if you were to join CAPS, that doesn’t suggest that you are automatically a professional speaker. CAPS used to have a tagline: “Experts who Speak Professionally”. In this case, if you speak, present, or facilitate in front of people and you get paid to deliver a service, so you are deemed a professional speaker.
Having said that, I am grateful that I spent 14 years crafting my speaking skills at Toastmasters, which enhanced my ability to be a professional speaker.