From Toastmasters to TEDx: 5 Frank Public Speaking Tips

Speaking at TEDxCoMo last spring.
TL;DR - I used to be a pretty awful speaker, now I'm a pretty awesome speaker. If you want some tips, including how much crap I had to do to earn Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) designation, read on for 5 Tips on Being a Better Speaker. Biggest tip: just concentrate on your first line. The rest will come. Note: I'll use the words "talk" and "speech" interchangeably.

TIP 1: Admit you can be a better speaker

Senior year of high school, all of us in Honors English had to write and deliver a 5 minute graduation speech, with the one being deemed "the best" to be given at the ceremony. I delivered my 5 minute (as written) speech in 38 seconds.

That's not a typo: 38 seconds people.

Our production of Molière's Scapino
senior year at Elizabethtown College.

TIP 2: Do theatre

Freshman year of college I began doing theatre, and later declared it as a minor (there wasn't a major at the time), which changed my life. I learned how to breathe, employ vocal variety, how to stand, how to command a stage, and how to be vulnerable. 

Don't have the chops, or inclination to be on stage? Improv is a good, close second - find a group near you or look for a community college class. Or...

TIP 3: Join Toastmasters

I joined Toastmasters to keep my skills fresh, and ended up earning my DTM. Here's all the crap (including 40 talks) you have to do to earn your DTM. (A designation earned by less than 1% of the 4 million Toastmasters worldwide.) There are clubs in almost every city (we have 135 in San Diego county/Baja California) who meet on a variety of days and times - so there's a fit for every schedule. ProTip: If you don't jive with your first club, try a different one. Each one has it's own vibe. Find a club.

In addition to helping rid you of the "ums" and "ahs" there's a portion of the meeting called Table Topics, where you're called on to speak off the cuff for 2 minutes. It's awesome practice for interviews and real life in general.

Tip 4: Practice the hell outta your talk

For my TEDxCoMo talk in April 2013, I practiced on 18 people via Skype, and in person with 8 additional folks. I didn't make changes based on each individual's feedback, though. Instead, I did it in batches of 3 people at time...looked for trends in the feedback, then made adjustments accordingly.

When people ask for my help with their talks, I give them this very simple advice:
  1. Write your speech out.
  2. Practice 3 or 4 times - OUT LOUD. Hearing it, you'll realize that writing and speaking are two wildly different forms of communication.
  3. Take the paragraphs, and distill them each into a single sentence.
  4. Run through again.
  5. Take the single sentences, distill them into a key phrase.
  6. Run through again.
  7. Now just memorize the key words.
My dear friend, mentor, and theatre professor Mike
Sevareid, who shaped the speaker I am today.
Now, if I'm being honest, I do the opposite in 99.9% of my talks. I think about what I want to say, jot down a few bullets, then run with it. I feel out the room as I'm presenting, then try to go with the flow based on what they're giving me back.

If you do need to memorize, record yourself on your phone (the voice memo feature on iPhone is great), then play it again and again, eventually talking with it. It's like how you learn a song -- you sing along to the radio! So talk along to yourself. :)

On the day of your talk, just concentrate on your first line. The rest will come. Not the beginning, or the middle, or the end: just your first line. I got this advice from Michael Sevareid, my theatre mentor 20 years ago, and it worked on my first opening night, and it worked at TEDxCoMo.

Oh, and as for videotaping yourself and watching it back? That's painful, and stupid, and causes more stress than giving the talk itself. I've only ever done it once, 15 years ago, and do not recommend it to anyone. Instead, practice in front of people and have them give you feedback. ProTip: If there's something in particular you're trying to be better at, tell the person you're practicing on so they can look for it.

Amanda Palmer gives a great overview of how she prepared for her TED2013 talk.

Tip 5: Know the stakes

Not every talk is a TED (or TEDx) talk. Practice an appropriate amount of time to the audience and how well you know the topic.

BONUS Q: Oh, and butterflies, Kara?

THEY'RE GOOD. Embrace them, love them, feed them little unicorn kisses. They show you respect your audience, and want to do a good job. People who aren't nervous worry me. Sure, you may have given this talk 235 times, but you've never given them to this group of people, and you don't know how they'll receive it, so you should be a little nervous that you'll be able to connect with them and show them value.

In closing

I've been speaking and facilitating for about 18 years now, and it's one of the things I'm pretty decent at. Having said that, I'm NOT one of those Shiny-esque Fakey McFakester speakers. (My favorite comment to receive is, "You come across as so genuine.")

But it took time. And feedback. And time.

Now get practicing.

Here's my most recent talk, from TEDxComo in April 2013.


All good tips. Congrats on making such improvements.