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Toastmasters can help overcome the fear of public speaking

  • The Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters met in the bottom floor of the New Hampshire Telephone Museum in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    The Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters met in the bottom floor of the New Hampshire Telephone Museum in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Lydia Harman, Toastmaster during the Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters meeting in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013, introduces the themes and discusses the agenda.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Lydia Harman, Toastmaster during the Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters meeting in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013, introduces the themes and discusses the agenda.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Carol Marston, of Concord, applauds her son, Andy Marston, after he gave his ice-breaker speech during the Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters meeting in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013. Andy just started attending Toastmasters meetings and his mother attended to show support for her son.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Carol Marston, of Concord, applauds her son, Andy Marston, after he gave his ice-breaker speech during the Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters meeting in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013. Andy just started attending Toastmasters meetings and his mother attended to show support for her son.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • The Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters met in the bottom floor of the New Hampshire Telephone Museum in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Lydia Harman, Toastmaster during the Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters meeting in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013, introduces the themes and discusses the agenda.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Carol Marston, of Concord, applauds her son, Andy Marston, after he gave his ice-breaker speech during the Kearsarge chapter of Toastmasters meeting in Warner on Thursday, May 23, 2013. Andy just started attending Toastmasters meetings and his mother attended to show support for her son.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

If there is a worst way to get into public speaking, Neil Billings found it. While doing steel work in 1999, he fell off a building, breaking both legs, crushing his ankle and suffering numerous other injuries. The company he worked for was taken to court, and Billings was called to testify.

“They put me on the stand, and I was frozen,” he recalled.

Billings joined a local chapter of the Toastmasters, and within a year he had entered a public speaking contest.

“Their problem was getting me to shut up,” said Billings, who now serves as vice president of education for the Kearsarge Toastmasters and will take over as president this month.

Many of us would sooner go up on the building Billings fell from than stand behind the podium he now frequents. Public speaking, according to some oft-quoted studies, is the number one phobia, ahead of heights, spiders and even death. But, like death, it can’t be avoided forever. The majority of us will be called upon at one time or another for a graduation speech, a work presentation, a wedding toast or some other duty that puts us in front of a crowd.

If your number is up, take heart: Giving a speech isn’t as horrifying as you might think (and not nearly as traumatic as running into one of those wolf spiders that carry their brood of several thousand on their backs. (If you’ve never seen one, don’t Google it. Just don’t.) Follow these tips and you’ll be a natural before you know it.

∎ Know your subject. If you’re lucky enough to have a choice of topics, go with what you know best – whether that’s a favorite hobby, a life-changing experience or a subject in which you’re well-read. Toastmaster newbies are always instructed to talk about themselves in their first speech because it’s what comes easiest to most of us, Billings said. If, on the other hand, the speech you’re dreading covers new ground for you, you better do your homework. There’s nothing worse than listening to someone stand up and read straight from his Powerpoint slides.

∎ Practice, practice, practice. Along with learning your material, you’ll be wise to rehearse your delivery. Of course, one great way to get practice – and constructive feedback – is to join a group like Toastmasters. Working your way through the 10 projects in the manual, you’ll gain experience with things like body language, visual aids and vocal variety. If you find that you’ll be speaking in front of people on a regular basis – maybe a new job requires frequent presentations – Toastmasters can also help you take your speaking skills further. Billings also recommends rehearsing in front of a variety of people.

∎ Start strong. First impressions are everything, so walk confidently to the podium and open with your best stuff, Billings said. If you fumble a few times or ramble a little in the middle, you’ll be forgiven. But it’s tough to recover from a bad opening. Not sure how to start? Tell a funny story.

∎ Make a connection. Eye contact is key to coming across poised as well as keeping people’s attention. Some people like to pick out a few friendly faces and keep returning to them.

Billings likes to imagine that he’s having a one-on-one conversation with each person in the audience rather than viewing the group as a whole. Another way to make a connection is to ask the audience a question from time to time, he says.

∎ Employ the power of the pause. Some people are terrified of silence and thus rush to fill the space.

Those who learn to hold back just a bit set themselves apart.

Try taking a few seconds to scan your audience before you speak. While you’re giving yourself a moment to collect your thoughts you’ll be heightening their anticipation.

∎ Speak up. No matter how good your speech, it’s not going to impress anyone if they can’t hear it. It’s rarer to talk too loudly than not loudly enough, so err on the side of caution and flex those vocal chords.

∎ Harness fear. Fear can be your enemy or your friend, depending on how you look at it. Some experts say that simply viewing the markers of anxiety – sweaty palms, pounding heart, dry mouth – in a positive way and understanding that your body is marshaling its resources for an important task can make you more effective.

The best way to take advantage of that healthy buzz without letting it control you is simply through repeated experience.

“You just have to get up there and speak,” Billings said.

Yes, having a speech impediment also has had an impact on my career and ability to speak in front of large groups but I overcame it knowing I had to in order to be successful in life and in my career. The most important thing I learned was that if you open with some humor, a story or something light, you can flow right into the subject matter. Beyond that, make the speech interactive with the audience and get them involved by putting them on the spot......transfer the uncomfortable feelings to them, make a point, give an example and ask who has experienced that thing and ask them to tell their little story. Look for a friendly face in the crowd, focus on them, our eyes tend to go up and to the right so if there is anyone in the room who you feel uncomfortable with, position your body and focus away from them. However DON'T practice too much but do know more about the subject than anyone in the room.....if you can, bring in interesting, up to the minute information that can assure the no one in the room is aware of. One more point, I used to start my saying: "I have stuttered my whole life, so if you hear me way a word more than once today, just know that is how I speak", I would smile and then start my speech. That eased my nerves.

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