“There are only two types of speakers in the world: 1) The nervous; and 2) Liars.”               — Mark Twain

Most people fear public speaking.  Thankfully, I’m not one of them though it wasn’t always that way.  I credit much of my confidence in speaking to my involvement in Toastmasters.   For those unfamiliar with the organization, Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs.  Membership exceeds 332,000 in more than 15,400 clubs in 135 countries.

In Spring 2015, I joined two Chicago clubs after an 8-year hiatus from the organization.  Each club had a distinctly different culture.  One was large and open with an extremely diverse membership.  The other was small, closely-knit, and made up of young professionals where the leader was tasked with running the meeting and bringing wine for attendees.  Both groups were incredibly accepting and many members became my friends inside and outside of the clubs.

I’ve learned a lot from my recent dive into Toastmasters.  Below are just some of the lessons:

1.  It’s All About the Audience

Although I am a good storyteller and knowledgeable in various areas of business, that doesn’t mean all people will eagerly listen to what I have to say.  They’re going to ask, “Why should I spend my time listening?  What’s in it for me?”  One of the greatest lessons from Toastmasters (and public speaking in general) is understanding the importance of connecting with the audience.  It’s critical to help the audience understand why what’s being said is so important and why it matters to them.  Connecting with people emotionally and personally allows them to think, feel, and take action based upon what they’ve heard.  Resonance is the key to connection.

2.  No One Wants to See Failure

When people go to see a comedian, they’re going because they want to laugh.  They don’t want the person to bomb on stage.  Similarly, when people listen to a speech, they want the speaker to succeed, not fail.  Letting go of the fear of judgement allows a speaker to better entertain, inform, inspire, and move the audience.  Knowing people want me succeed and aren’t judging me, I am better able to deliver a speech with impact.

3.  I Only Speak About Topics I Care About

If I speak about a topic I don’t care about, my energy is lacking.  My words seem less authentic and genuine and I’m more likely to present a rehearsed narrative.  The impact of the speech is much greater if I care about my topic.  When I care and can speak with ease, the speech becomes more of an improvised discussion rather than a scripted narrative.  I am better able to connect with the audience, rather than just present content.

4.  I’m Competing Against No One But Myself

I am privileged to be in the company of some truly exceptional speakers in my Toastmasters clubs.  We are all on different legs of our unique journeys towards becoming more effective communicators.  We have different presentation styles but all agree on one thing:  It’s better to take risks, try new approaches, and fail at Toastmasters than fall flat in a place where the stakes are much higher.

We’re all on this adventure together and none of us are in it to one-up anyone else.  Instead of comparing myself to others, I care only about how I am developing.  I review where I am in my progress, from where I’ve come, and where I aspire to go.  Taking video of my speeches and watching them for feedback has been immensely helpful.

5.  Practice, Don’t Rehearse

Anyone can tell when a speaker is regurgitating a rehearsed script.  It’s robotic and dry and feels inauthentic.  A speech is so much more effective when the presenter is personal and delivers what feels like a conversation.  Practice means strengthening, smoothing speech content and mechanics.  It’s about building confidence in the delivery, not perfecting the delivery.

I’ve learned that my speeches are more genuine when I don’t write them out in full.  Instead, I note only key points, phrases, and quotes.  I write out parts of the speech when I’m in a state of mental ease and flow.  When that ease ceases, I stop writing.  Although it can take weeks to ink a good speech, forcing the words is counterproductive to building authenticity.

6.  There Are No Shortcuts to Becoming a Better Speaker

Over the past nine months, I’ve given over three dozen presentations and speeches, through Toastmasters and elsewhere.  As my friend and fellow Toastmaster Jim Herbert affirms: “Doing the work is the tried and true method of developing the craft.”  In maturing as a speaker, there are no shortcuts.  You have to put in the time and effort.  It doesn’t matter how many books you read, TED-talks you watch, or speech coaches you hire, they are supplements not substitutes.  In the end, the best way to become a better speaker is to speak.  Toastmasters is a great place to get that experience.