I am a Competent Communicator

Two and a half years after joining Toastmasters, I gave my tenth speech today. That completes my first manual, and qualifies me for the Competent Communicator award. It will be nice to get the certificate, and have a letter sent to my employer, but what is really good is that I think I actually am a competent communicator now.

It’s not that I couldn’t speak in public before. I’ve helped lead worship at my husband’s church on a number of occasions, including preaching a few times at the church in Michigan. I was told I did well, and even asked if I had considered going to seminary (as though preaching were the primary requirement of leading a congregation!).

Since joining Toastmasters, though, I’ve learned quite a bit about effective speaking. My first few speeches, I may not have come across as particularly nervous (though I certain felt that way), but I stood in one spot and used few gestures. I had no trouble conveying earnestness, but I couldn’t manage much in the way of humor. And I struggled a lot with organizing my speeches into a few main points.

As a writer, I always hated the dictum “say what you’re going to say, say it, then say it again.” To me that seemed to be insulting the reader’s intelligence, as though people could not understand something without being hit over the head with it. Since I always got good marks on my papers, it seemed that my teachers did not think it necessary to repeat my points as long as I made them well.

What worked for me on term papers, however, did not work well for public speaking. As I considered the constructive criticism I received, as well as taking note of what made other people’s speeches effective (or not), I realized what a difference it made when the organization of a speech was made very clear.

I suppose it is probably less important with speeches where the primary purpose is to entertain. If I’m enjoying the stories I hear, I don’t really care whether I recognize a thread that ties them together. And a really entertaining story is memorable regardless of how it is told.

But when it comes to informative and persuasive speeches, I find it hard to remember important points unless I have a straightforward framework to attach them to in my mind. Perhaps for some people, making sense of the written word is hard that way and oral teaching is easier to understand. But I’ve always been a very visually oriented learner, and I need the assistance of a clear outline to absorb the main points of a speech.

To my surprise, I discovered that when I finally started organizing my speeches with a preview of my main points, the main points, and then a recap of them, the whole process of preparing a speech got easier. I make a point of speaking with few if any notes, and the same repetition that makes the speech easier for the audience to understand makes it easier for me to remember.

There are always some things I forget. I have more supporting information than I need to make each point, so omitting some doesn’t hurt as long as the most important content is there. (Today I forgot a point that I would have considered important, but apparently it was not necessary after all, as the evaluator clearly got the thrust of what I had wanted to convey.) And because I know I can afford to miss some detail here and there, I go into the speech with greater confidence that I can do it well.

It took a while for that confidence to translate into freedom of movement, however. It wasn’t until I participated in an area contest, where no one used the lectern, that I realized just how much I could do with gestures. I don’t use my hands much when I speak in an ordinary conversation, so it took conscious effort to use them in public speaking. I still couldn’t seem to get my legs to move, though.

Then I saw other contestants walk around, pantomime calling someone on the phone, act out both parties in a conversation, and more. A light suddenly went on – public speaking was a lot like acting! I haven’t done anything as extreme as one of my fellow club members told about today – to introduce a speech about CPR, he started acting very agitated and then fell on the floor.

But today I pantomimed driving a car, tying my shoe, and walking my dog. It gets me away from the lectern, and makes whatever point I’m making that much more memorable. It probably also helps keep me from talking nonstop – ever try to speak to an audience while bent to tie your shoe? That’s another thing I’ve learned – the value of pauses. And I still don’t use them enough, I think.

I still need to work more on the humor also. But it was a big boost to me, in my sixth speech, to realize that I actually could get people to laugh. When I started planning this tenth speech, which was to be inspirational in nature, I had planned to talking about not taking myself – or life – too seriously. But over the months I thought about what to say and how to say it, it turned into a speech on living in the present (rather than dwelling on the past or future). But I still got a few laughs.

I learned from officer training in my previous club (I had to change clubs last fall when the one I was leading disbanded due to lack of interest – not exactly a great tribute to my leadership skills, but I think it was headed downhill before I became president) that most members of Toastmasters quit within two years. Many don’t even know that achieving Competent Communicator is not the culmination of the program.

But I’ve learned enough that I want to learn more. I want to get better at doing impromptu speeches. (I do OK but I’ve yet to manage to do one with a coherent beginning, middle, and end unless it was by accident.) I want to get better at humor and at telling stories. (I get a choice what two manuals to work on next, and one will be on telling stories.)

And I want to have fun doing it. That part, I’ve learned, shouldn’t be too hard.

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