I get a lot of people that come to me asking how they can best improve their presentation skills. Some of them have a strong fear of public speaking while others lack the fear but simply want to improve their speaking style. In both situations, the same basic rule applies – you can’t truly become a better speaker without getting up and speaking. But everyone is different and the truly best way for one person to improve their speaking skills may be different than someone else.
There are really four options that you can use to improve your public speaking skills so I’ve ranked them in general effectiveness and also added some commentary about how to get the most out of each one. So here goes:
Okay, I may be a little biased here since I teach classes on public speaking, but honestly, this is exactly how I overcame my own fears. Classes, when done correctly, are truly the best way to overcome your fears and improve your delivery. The trick is to find a good class, which can be a challenge. Here are some of the things to look for.
First, does the class allow attendees to practice speaking or is it lecture only? If it’s the latter, you’re wasting your time. You might get some ideas and some motivation, but you won’t be a better speaker. A woman that attended one of my classes told me that it was the fourth class she had taken on public speaking and the only one where she got to speak. She also added that she learned more in that first session than she did in those other three classes combined.
Second, find out if the instructor speaks to groups regularly. If he or she does not have a blog and/or website (preferably, he/she will have both), then pass. Why is this so important? A true expert will have some on-line presence to showcase his/her knowledge. Read the posts and articles and try to read between the lines. Does this person sound like an expert or is he/she rattling off common knowledge? The other thing you’ll want to see is a list of speaking/teaching/lecture dates. If the person is good, he or she will offer classes regularly.
Lastly, is the level of the class appropriate for you? My “Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking” class is for all levels but I get both beginner and advanced speakers signing up. When a class is mixed, the beginners can feel intimidated by the apparent progress the advanced people make and the advanced people can get impatient when the focus is on the basics. I’ve found that by intertwining basic skills with more advanced skills and tossing in some personal development skills geared towards communication, it keeps everyone happy.
So spend some time finding a class that’s right for you. And, if I may be so bold, I will add that I can offer my class to companies, organizations or groups so please contact me if you’d like to learn more.
Toastmasters is my second best choice for a variety of reasons. First, while I learned to overcome my fears in a class, I learned how to improve my speaking skills in Toastmasters. Toastmasters gives you things that classes don’t such as an ongoing opportunity to speak to groups and leadership experience if you’re also looking for that.
On the flip side, Toastmasters is self-paced and there’s no instructor, so your progress depends on your own motivation and the strength and leadership of your club. I was lucky enough to be part of an amazing club with good speakers. But not every club is like that. So visit a few clubs first before settling on one and read my Toastmasters Primer and article on how to find a good club.
Coaching is great for people that lack the fear of public speaking but want to focus on improving their style. It’s also okay for people with a near phobia that need someone to hold their hand, but in that case, make sure that the coach works with you to get out and talk to groups.
The challenge with coaching is that you’re not in front of a live audience. The plus side is that the coach can focus on your needs and concerns rather than having to split his/her time between other class members. On the downside, you’re practicing in front of one person so it doesn’t have the same feel as speaking to even a small audience.
Coaching is best for people that feel their style is preventing them from getting to where they want to be. If you have a fear, try Toastmasters or a class. But if you just feel you’re not connecting with your audiences, coaching may be the way to go.
This popular self-improvement method includes books, CDs and DVDs. A good program will give you ideas and help you with the technical skills of speaking such as how to prepare and traps to avoid. However, it is no substitute for getting in front of a live audience. If you speak regularly, you might benefit from tips that you can apply to your next talk. If you’re scared of public speaking, you might find motivation and encouragement from a good program but that’s about it.
I’m not a huge fan of self-study programs for speakers (and yes, I have my own self-study speaking programs). If you choose to go this route, again only get a program from someone that knows about speaking (research them online). Anyone can make a recording, dump it on a disc and mail it out (or write a document, save it as a PDF and email it). Also, supplement it with actual speaking to groups. If you don’t have a group to speak to, try your local service club.