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Practice makes perfect in art of public speaking

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For some, public speaking is as easy as private conversation; but for others it can be a frightening, almost traumatic experience.

Meredith Neville-Shepard, a visiting professor in the department of communications studies at IUPUC, said overcoming the fear of talking to an audience can be challenging but is not impossible.

“Practice is the best way to overcome that fear; and remember that, unless you have a really mean audience, the people want you to succeed, so they are on your side,” Neville-Shepard said.

In some jobs, public speaking goes with the territory, and people who are effective at engaging an audience often gravitate to those careers.

Others think their career path will never require them to speak in public but suddenly find they are required to give a presentation about a job-related project and are not prepared.

That’s why Neville-Shepard says it is important to acquire at least a cursory knowledge of effective public speaking methods.

“The thing about public speaking is that at one time or another, most people are afraid to do it,” Neville Shepard said. “But most people are going to have to speak in public some time, and even a job interview is a form of public communication,” Neville-Shepard said.

Toastmasters International has become an effective resource for many looking to improve at public speaking. The nonprofit organization has more that 313,000 members and 14,650 clubs in 126 countries.

‘Constructive feedback’

Elton Duro, president of the Columbus Toastmaster’s club, said effective public speaking helps people improve their confidence and self-esteem.

“We have people who joined a year ago that would freeze when they spoke to a group of people, and now they are giving presentations to large audiences,” Duro said.

Columbus President’s Distinguished Toastmasters Club 2481 has about 30 members from many of the diverse cultures represented in the region.

The group hosted an open house in August at the Doug Otto Center at United Way of Bartholomew County on 13th Street, where it meets every Tuesday.

Duro said the event was designed to demonstrate how meetings help members improve not only public speaking but also communication and leadership skills.

For many in the Columbus group, the fear of public speaking stems from being unfamiliar with the English language, he said.

“I am from Brazil, and English is not my first language. So I can speak it, but I was not confident talking to a large audience,” Duro said. “When people first come to us, they are looking to overcome the fear of public speaking. Once they join, they find we also focus on things such as time management, listening skills and giving constructive feedback.”

Abhijit Kulkarni, a Cummins employee who came to the United States from India in 2009, joined the local Toastmasters group about four months ago. Kulkarni said speaking to groups became part of his job, and he knew he had to get better at it.

“I was very nervous at first, but they really help you relax, because everyone here is trying to help each other get better,” Kulkarni said. “We’re allowed to make mistakes, and through mistakes, you get better.”

‘Certain level of humility’

Generally, talking to a group gets easier with repetition, but even seasoned public speakers can become uncomfortable at times.

Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board, has given dozens of speeches and presentations. He previously worked in economic development in Elwood and Kokomo and was director for the Indiana Economic Development Corp., Central Region.

“Every now and then, I’ll be a minute into my remarks and realize I am nervous, and I am caught by surprise,” Hester said. “Usually I have a healthy level of butterflies; but a lot of times if it’s material I know, not as much. I think it’s important to keep a certain level of humility.”

Neville-Shepard said overcoming fear is only the first step in becoming an effective public speaker.

“When many people think of public speaking they think of delivery, and that is key for the message to be successful,” Neville-Shepard said. “One thing that people don’t think about as much is the writing skills that go into it and the how to set up a speech with an introduction, the body and the conclusion.”

While there are a lot of guidelines for public speaking, Duro said effective tips can differ for each speaker and finding the ones that work best is a trial-and-error process.

‘Developing a skill’

He said Toastmasters follows a format designed to help members start slowly and gradually improve.

The 10 steps to the group’s competent communicator award begin with the Ice Breaker, which is just a self-introduction. Members work their way through steps that include organizing a speech, using vocal variety and researching topics, which culminates with using all of the tools to inspire an audience.

Members learn not only by giving speeches or presentations but also by providing critiques of others or performing other roles at meetings.

Each meeting has a Toastmaster of the Day, which provides an opportunity for different members to lead the event and practice being a congenial host.

There are usually three speakers who have a prepared presentation and are expected to meet certain objectives, based on their experience. There is also a table topics session that requires members to speak on an impromptu topic for about two minutes in an effort to improve their ability to communicate spontaneously.

Evaluators grade the speakers and emphasize what they did well in addition to those things that could be improved upon. A grammarian monitors proper word usage, and a timekeeper keeps track of how well the participants stay within the allotted limits for each speech.

There is even an “ahs” counter that reports on the usage of repetitive and unnecessary speech fillers.

The critiques are designed as positive reinforcement and are never derogatory or harsh.

Neville-Shepard said that is what makes groups such as Toastmasters popular and effective.

“Public speaking is developing a skill, so people have to work at it and they need to build their confidence,” Neville-Shepard said. “That’s kind of the mission of Toastmasters.”

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