In front of large audiences, whether in person or online, one of my favorite things to do is ask, “How many of you here consider yourselves public speakers?” Less than half of the audience will raise their hands or indicate they are public speakers.
Then with a big ginger smile, I let everyone know that if you speak in public, then you are a public speaker. It’s a scientific fact that you cannot argue either.
It may sound cheeky, but it gets to the heart of being a public speaker, which is identifying as one.
If you do not identify as a public speaker, then you will likely not invest the time to improve these skills. If you do not identify as a public speaker, then you will likely pass up opportunities for speaking that are staring you right in the face. And if you don’t identify as a public speaker, you will likely underestimate the value of connecting with other speakers.
The key to becoming an effective communicator lies in investing time, looking for opportunities to practice, and being around the right people. I think breaking down each one of these a little bit will help you evolve your speaking skills.
Invest the time (over a long period of time)
A lot of people unfamiliar with the business of being a professional speaker don’t understand how much time goes into a presentation like a keynote. If I do my job correctly as a professional speaker, then when I’m on stage it should seem effortless, and what I say along with how I say it should come across as natural and fluid.
This is not something that happens overnight, but instead over a matter of years. Many professional speakers, myself included, have speaking coaches who identify our strengths and weaknesses and help us understand what will resonate with our key audience.
For me, one of the most exciting things about being a speaker is that there is always room to grow and learn. Do I get nervous before I take the stage or give an online presentation over Zoom? Sure! My palms get sweaty, my heart rate increases, and my thoughts often swarm around like a bait ball in my head.
But that’s normal. As you gain more experience as a professional speaker, you learn to see these nerves as excitement! I use my excitement to bring what I have learned to my audience, and they give me the “fuel” to keep going.
No matter where you are in your journey, there is always room to improve your speaking skills. You must understand that you’re on a journey, and you’re not just going to wake up one day and become the speaker that you’ve always wanted to be. Once you realize that your speaking skills will evolve, then you can start to prioritize your time to hone your craft.
Look for speaking opportunities (they are everywhere)
Many people ask me how they can become better public speakers. And I have a simple answer: to become a better speaker you must speak more. Yes, it can be that simple.
When you look at public speaking as more than just being on a stage in front of thousands of people, you’ll start to see more opportunities to practice your speaking skills. When you have a phone conversation with a friend, you’re speaking. You’re speaking when you tell your colleagues over Zoom what you did over the weekend.
I encourage you to look at your many daily conversations and think of them as “mini audiences”. You don’t need to be in a formal speaking engagement or business presentation to speak with authority and enthusiasm. Try to incorporate more awareness about the stories that you tell, and use small conversations that you have throughout the day as an opportunity to test out and practice material.
Many of us spend hours on social media without saying a word. We type replies and use emojis and GIFs. But don’t forget that video features within social media platforms allow you to flex your speaking skills a lot more than you might imagine. Consider replying with video, like creating Instagram Stories or Reels where you turn the camera on yourself and speak your mind.
You can even flex your speaking muscles by sending video messages on LinkedIn. Need an excuse to try? Connect with me on LinkedIn, and send me a video telling me what you think about this article! Such informal formats can help you express your personality and tone in a way that writing can’t. And it’s stage time as far as I am concerned.
You can also look for and volunteer for free speaking opportunities, to help get your name out there. That is exactly what I did at the beginning of my speaking career. For example, I attended a weekly startup event, and they asked if anyone wanted to “host” the event. I volunteered, and it was a great chance to practice prepared and impromptu speaking. I did well, and they asked me to keep hosting. It gave me great exposure, and that was the start of how I became known as the #GingerMC!
Another great place to find opportunities to create and give speeches is by joining a Toastmasters Club near you. With many clubs now having virtual meetings, the opportunity to find a club that matches your vibe is easier than ever. Going to Toastmasters has been a secret weapon in my speaking career. It’s not just for beginners. It’s always an exciting part of my week.
I volunteer for various roles and give speeches, using the safe environment to practice my content and get feedback from individuals I trust. If you want to become better at speaking, start looking for more opportunities to speak regularly, and I promise you they are all around you every single day.
Surround yourself with speakers (and learn from them)
As I became more serious about speaking professionally, I knew I needed to surround myself with other professionals so I could learn from them. That was part of the reason why I launched my World of Speakers Podcast. I figured it would be a great way to connect with speakers I could interview and learn from. The format of the podcast is simple. I ask them about their experience becoming a speaker, their tips about speaking, and how they have grown their speaking business.
In about five years I’ve interviewed more than 100 professional speakers who are now all part of my professional network. To connect with other speakers, you don’t necessarily need a podcast, but you should make a conscious effort to connect with like-minded people who are also looking to improve their public speaking skills. Speaker Hub, a platform that powers my World of Speakers Podcast, is a great place to find and connect with other speakers. If you want to see what a profile looks like, you can check mine out. It also has a great call for speakers function to search for both paid and speaking opportunities.
Find friends or family who are willing to listen to your presentations and give constructive feedback, and offer to return the favor. Find mentors at Toastmasters, or reach out to speakers you admire, sign up for their newsletters, and become part of their communities. I don’t believe you can become a great communicator isolated in a box by yourself.
The other advantage to connecting with people who are speakers is that oftentimes they will refer their friends and connections for speaking opportunities that they learn about. For example, when I land a speaking gig, I usually ask the event organizers if they are looking for more speakers.
They usually are, and I’m able to suggest some other speakers in my network. As a result, not only do the organizers benefit, but the people I refer often invite me to events they are invited to themselves. It’s a win-win-win. And the wins are huge when the speaking engagements are paid gigs!
Speaking is a great tool (especially for startups)
Entrepreneurs and startup leaders should take note that public speaking is part of their profession. Whether you’re delivering a keynote to your local university or business luncheon, you can bet that your peers will be looking to you for thought leadership and poise. It’s all about mastering communication on multiple fronts–talking points with reporters for live TV, sharing your company’s magic sauce in the boardroom, or pitching your idea to investors.
In my work with higher education, I’m always excited to help student entrepreneurs become more comfortable speakers. I always say that you can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t communicate it in a compelling and succinct way, it no longer is the best idea.
Seek inspiration through research (by being an audience member)
Experiencing other speakers as an audience member is more important than ever. As the industry is changing and adopting new ways of connecting with audiences, it’s good to see what it is like to be an audience. When you see how speakers on the front lines are testing new technologies and coming up with better ways to use digital platforms, it will shorten the amount of time that it takes you to adopt and learn new best practices.
I recommend researching speakers, engage with them on social media, and attend their talks when you can. Getting social will help people discover you and add authenticity to your mission. If you need a speaker friend to start with, feel free to find and follow me on Twitter, and/or subscribe to my World of Speakers podcast to meet people in my professional speaking network!
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