When faced with the prospect of taking a speaking class, this is the first question on many students’ minds. I will answer this question in two parts. First, we’ll find out why we have to learn to speak well. Second, we’ll find out how to learn to speak well.
Almost any job in existence today involves some sort of public speaking. This task might be as mundane as introducing yourself to your co-workers or as complex as making a sales presentation. Regardless of the type, learning to speak well will enhance your credibility and make clients think that you’re capable of doing the job. Basically, speaking well is important for everyone from politicians to Malaysian schoolchildren.
The Baltimore Sun tells the story of a candidate who got "all balled up syntactically" while making speeches. Some of her mix-ups include congratulating a team for "scoring a dramatic football" and "without whom’s help". Political advisors worry that she is establishing "a track record [of poor speaking, so] she may not be capable of being governor of this state". Obviously, public speaking is important for a political career. This candidate didn’t learn how to speak, and her opponents are using that to imply that she won't be a good governor. Her failure to learn how to speak might cost her a chance at a political career. Conversely, people who have good speaking skills can hold political office. Powerful speakers such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Jesse Jackson and have used their speaking skills in politics
Halfway across the word, the same problem presents itself. The New Straits Times chronicles a group of Malaysian students who are working on overcoming classroom shyness. Educators are concerned that these students are naturally shy and "seldom participate in classroom activities". Apparently, this trend was a large enough problem that educators sponsored this out-of-class activity. The kids practice speaking by reading a newspaper clipping to the group, reciting a poem, learning about proverbs and playing a debating game. All of these activities are excellent for beginning speakers who are trying to overcome their fear of public speaking. Further, these activities helped them to become more confident, which will help them in their educational careers.
Another example comes from the Boston Globe. This is the story of an all-girl sleep-away public speaking camp. Girls aged 12 through 16 can come to upstate New York to practice parliamentary debate, dramatic reading and impromptu speaking. These activites are similar to competitive college speaking (see the "clubs" section for more information). Coach Paul Basset says "It’s OK to have butterflies as long as they’re flying in formation." He adds, "…with practice, anyone can conquer a fear of public speaking." Students from this camp have gone on to success in law and various business fields. This camp proves two things. First , it proves that a fear of public speaking can be conquered in a week. Second, it shows that public speaking skills, even if they're learned in childhood, can be valuable for the rest of your life.
As a college student, I have used my speaking skills in a variety of ways. Obviously, speech skills help when you’re competing in public speaking. Further, participating in speech has taught me research skills and done wonders for my self-confidence. I've also learned about the metro system in Prague, how to sleep for three hours in a cold hallway and where to find good Chinese food in Athens, Ohio. However, my speech skills are also useful when doing presentations in classes or research conferences. I’ve even caught myself using speech techniques when I’m arguing with my mom!
Clearly, people in all walks of life need good speech skills for a variety of reasons. Now that you know why you need to speak well, you must learn how to speak well.
There are many ways to become an effective speaker—here are four of them.
- You can take a look at these speech tips, compiled from a variety of articles.
- You could also take a look at my personal speech tips.
- You can take a speech class at the high school or college level.
- You can join a speaking club or another organization for public speaking.
- Combat stress by breathing deeply and slowly. You don't have to do this for a long period of time for it to be effective; just three or four deep, calming breaths can improve your performance, particularly your introduction. Further, if you feel yourself getting nervous at any point during the speech, stop and take one deep breath. Your audience won't be offended by the slight pause, and it will help the rest of your speech.
- Reduce stress by learning to laugh at your own mistakes. Laughing at your mistakes will help put them into perspective, and that's one of the most important things a speaker can have.
- Use a script, even for short introductions. Looking at notes is always better than making embarrassing verbal stumbles. A script can also save you from sudden memory loss, or "blanking".
- Make sure your script is large enough to read, even if you forget your glasses. You'll look much more professional if your script is lying on the podium, rather than being held two inches from your nose. Squinting at your script is worse than not having one at all.
- Remember that the audience is on your side—slow down and use everyday language to help them understand. The audience doesn't want to hear a confusing speech any more than you want to give one. Help them understand and they'll be grateful.
- Make sure to offer solutions that involve your audience. If your audience leaves your speech feeling like they can help solve a problem, then you've succeeded as a speaker.
- Make eye contact with as much of your audience as possible. This will help your audience feel connected with you, and you will also feel connected with your audience.
These tips are from my three years on Heidelberg College’s Speech Team
- "If you’re not nervous, you’re dead!" I’m always at least a little nervous before every competition, but I’ve learned to deal with it so it doesn’t affect my performance. I try to breathe deeply and slowly, and I remind myself that I've worked just as hard as the rest of the competitors.
- You notice far more of your own mistakes than your audience ever will. For example, I can walk out of a competition thinking that I've really messed up. Then, when I get the judge's comments back, I find out that I didn't do so badly after all.
- "Whatever can go wrong will." (Thank you Mr. Murphy!) So far, I’ve made just about every conceivable mistake while speaking. I’ve dropped visual aids, stumbled over my own feet, forgot entire points of my speech and totally lost my train of thought for no apparent reason. I've also had a janitor come in to empty the trashcan, a fellow speaker's soda has spilled, and one of my judges almost fell out a window! Guess what? I’m still alive and speaking. Whatever mistakes you make have already been made…don’t worry about them.
- If you can, try to get to your performance spot about 10 minutes early. That will give you enough time to set up any visual aids you have, and it’ll also allow you to mentally go over your speech one last time. This tip has been a life-saver for me. My coach told me to try it to combat nervousness, and ever since then I've used it faithfully. If you're there before anyone else, you can even arrange the room (move desks, tables etc.) to your satisfaction.
- Practicing in front of an audience is always better than practicing alone. I’ve bored my roommate to tears, my "friends" have thrown things at me and all my teammates have my speeches totally memorized, but any audience you can put together is still better than none at all. I've tried to do speeches with a video camera as my only audience, and it doesn't work. I end up forgetting half my speech and stumbling repeatedly.
- Make sure your speech has a clear (generally two or three point) structure. If an audience doesn’t know where you’re going with this point, they will be confused and distracted. It also helps to physically transition (move from one side of the room to another) when you're changing points. This helps your audience to remember your points.
If you need help speaking, take a speech class!
Many studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to improve your speaking ability is to take a speech class. The journal of Communication Education has conducted several studies that are able to prove the benefits of taking a speech class, particularly at the undergraduate level.
This journal has studied the effects of speech education since it was founded. As far back as April of 1983, Joe Steele and Douglas Trank recognized that "Few people question the assumption that college graduates need effective communication skills to succeed in their chosen profession…The primary means of developing those skills…continues to be instruction in basic composition and speech courses." The article goes on to say that improvements in a student’s writing and speaking skills can be measured in just a semester of speech education. Further, students that start out with the lowest level of competence gain the most from an introductory speech course.
A study done in January, 1990 reveals some interesting information about the far-reaching affect of speech skills. The study says that communication competence was linked to success in college. Further, high school communications competence was linked to a higher GPA. The study also found that college speech courses had a positive effect on the first two years of college. Thus, we can conclude that college speech classes can help you while you’re in school, as well as providing excellent career skills.
Clearly, if you want to become a better speaker, a speech class can help you do so. However, as with any educational effort, "you get out of it what you put into it". When I was enrolled in Heidelberg’s basic speech course (CTA 100), I noticed two types of students. The first type worked on their speeches a few nights before they were due, researching and constructing visual aids. The second type wrote their speeches the night before, and their research consisted of a philosophical discussion with their roommate. I noticed that the prepared speakers seemed to get better over the semester, while the unprepared speakers showed little improvement. To get the maximum benefit from your speech class, I suggest putting as much effort as possible into it. You’ll notice the results.
Practice makes perfect, so join a speech club!
If you're serious about becoming a better speaker, join some type of speaking organization. Practice (and performance) will improve your speaking skills, and your coaches will make you the best speaker you can possibly be!
If you're a high school student, you can try the National Forensics League (http://debate.uvm.edu/nfl.html). I don't have any personal experience with this organization, but it seems to be well organized. I do know a lot of participants in college forensics who loved doing speech in high school.
If you're a college student, your school might be a member of the American Forensics Association (http://www.americanforensics.org/) or the National Forensics Association (http://www.bethel.edu/Majors/Communication/nfa/.html). Many schools are actually members of both organizations, and they are extremely similar. I have enjoyed three years of competition with both of these organizations. (Most tournaments follow the rules for both organizations.) The tournaments are efficiently run, and many rules exist to make the events as fair as possible.
If you're not a student, there are undoubtedly many speaking clubs in your area. A national organization dedicated to improving communication skills is the Toastmasters (http://www.toastmasters.org/index.htm). According to several articles, this organization has helped thousands of people to overcome public speaking fears. They have a well-developed method that gives new speakers a place to get friendly, constructive criticism on their speaking efforts.
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