Earlier this year, I was presenting a Cheating Death by PowerPoint lecture to a group of students. I had a 45-minute session planned that was chock-full of information I knew they could use. Before I started, I handed out evaluation forms so that I could see how well I did. When I finished, I gathered up the evaluations, thanked my host, and went to another area of campus and started reading what the students had written about me.
The reviews were not as universally glowing as I had anticipated. I knew that students are a tough bunch to please since they sit through presentations day in and day out. In fact, I’d experienced this at another institution. Even so, the results were jarring. While most people liked my content and found it valuable, many took issue with my delivery. Among other things, they thought I seemed rushed and overly serious. Some believed I was too self-serving by instructing them to visit my website and blog. These criticisms were valid: I felt rushed because there was so much I wanted to tell them in such a brief time. I am serious about great design, so I thought I should come across as serious during my talk. And I thought I was being helpful by directing people to my website and blog to get more information than I was able to present in 45 minutes.
What went wrong? I believed I had been an effective, informative presenter. But that wasn’t the impression I gave to this particular audience.
It turns out that some of the problem was out of my control. By the time my presentation started, the students had already been in the classroom for about three hours. They had to hurriedly gobble down their lunch during my talk, then rush off to an exam in a different classroom afterwards. This obviously did not prime them to be a great audience, but I could’ve been a better presenter.
Shortly after this experience, I joined Toastmasters.
Toastmasters International is an organization dedicated to helping people to develop their speaking and leadership skills. The meetings offer a forum for members to try out their own material or to work through the many Toastmasters manuals. Speeches are evaluated by group members and feedback is immediate. In addition to prepared speeches, Toastmasters can be called on to deliver impromptu speeches on subjects they’re given moments before they go onstage.
It’s interesting to witness the various skill levels of the people at Toastmasters meetings. Some have been members for years, and their effortless delivery serves as an inspiration. Others are very timid and uncomfortable speaking in front of a group. But we all learn from one another in a nurturing environment of well-intentioned critiques.
Some speeches kill, others bomb. I’ve delivered both kinds at my club. Either way, I receive constructive criticism on areas to improve and kudos on what I did well.
A side benefit to joining Toastmasters has been finding people to be with when I’m out of town on business. Last week, I visited the CN Collaborators Toastmasters Club in Montreal. The meeting was mostly conducted in French, which I don’t speak. This didn’t turn out to be as much of a problem as I’d thought it would be. My host took the time to translate speeches for me, which made the meeting more enjoyable. Plus, the language barrier enabled me to concentrate on the way people were presenting—their voices, pacing, gestures, and movement—rather than what they were saying. As an added bonus, I was able to join a few of my new friends for dinner after the meeting!
Since becoming a Toastmaster, I’ve learned to lighten up onstage and to present my material in a more engaging manner. The results have been striking, as evidenced by my improved evaluations.
Even if you’re not a public speaker, you can benefit from Toastmasters. Becoming an effective speaker can help salespeople, teachers, managers, and leaders.
I’ve found Toastmasters to be a tremendous help and I encourage you to visit a local Toastmasters club to learn what it’s all about. When you combine improved presentation skills with improved presentations, you get a one-two punch that makes you a better speaker!