Becoming a Better Public Speaker Does Not Have to Be That Hard

Toastmasters helps members get over the fear of public speaking

5 April 2010

Many engineers consider public speaking one of the scariest things they’ve ever done. But if you want to get ahead in your career, it’s a skill you must master. Whether it’s presenting your paper at an IEEE conference, briefing senior management on your project’s progress, or pitching your services to a new client, speaking before an audience is absolutely critical. To improve their communication skills, many IEEE members have turned to Toastmasters International.

Toastmasters is a nonprofit organization with nearly 250 000 members in more than 12 500 clubs in 106 countries. There’s even a club for IEEE employees at the Operations Center, in Piscataway, N.J.

Most Toastmasters meetings are composed of about 20 people who get together weekly for an hour or two. They practice and learn communication skills by filling several roles, including presenting either a prepared or impromptu speech, serving as an evaluator or grammarian, and timing a speaker’s talk. There are no instructors; instead, members critique each other’s speeches, pointing out what was done well and what could be improved.

“The organization teaches you how to write and deliver a speech,” says IEEE Member Richard Sanchez, who has been a member of the club in Tampa, Fla., for several years. “I encourage engineers in our area to participate as a way to help them improve their communication and leadership skills.” Sanchez is editor of Signal, the IEEE Florida West Coast Section newsletter. Once a year he publishes an article touting Toastmasters’ benefits.

According to Sanchez, a data processing telecommunications technician with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, club members complete 10 speech projects at their own pace, which typically takes about one year. Each speech builds on skills learned in the previous project. Each project focuses on improving a specific area such as body language, the speaking voice, or speech organization.

If you ask IEEE Senior Member Nita Patel’s colleagues to describe her, they’ll tell you she’s confident and expresses her thoughts clearly. But she wasn’t always that way. She credits Toastmasters for helping her evolve from a shy, tongue-tied, and self-conscious woman to one who is poised and articulate. Vice president for IEEE-USA Communications & Public Awareness, Patel supervises systems and software engineers working on electro-optical defense systems at Insight Technology in Londonderry, N.H.

“I don't think Toastmasters changes the core of your being,” she says. “However, I am definitely much more comfortable in crowds, I can talk easily to groups, and I feel confident when presenting my ideas. I truly believe I would not be as capable a leader without Toastmasters.”

Patel has been involved with the organization for eight years and is a governor for District 45, which covers Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. Governors visit clubs to answer questions about running meetings, holding contests, or the various leadership roles. (Toastmasters divides the world into 86 districts.)

Patel says the club helped her become a better IEEE volunteer because she learned “how to plan an agenda, set a course of action, get consensus, explain ideas, listen effectively, disagree in a friendly manner, and encourage continuous improvement.” She says she was able to develop those skills—all of which can be acquired by participating in the club—through guidance, practice, and trial and error.

“You will get 10 times more out of it than what you put in,” she says of membership. “I promise it will transform you for the better.”

Graduate Student Member Mohd Kharbat felt the pressure to polish his presentation skills when he began his Ph.D. program in informatics and sensors at the Cranfield University campus in Shrivenham, England.

“I realized early on that speaking before an audience is something I would have to do often, and that confident speaking skills are a must-have in order to progress in my career,” Kharbat says. He joined the Oxford Speakers, a Toastmasters club belonging to District 71. He’s now the club’s vice president for public relations.

“I never thought public speaking could be so enjoyable,” he says. “What's great about Toastmasters is the encouragement and comments you receive from fellow members. This friendly and constructive feedback is crucial to overcoming nerves and gaining the needed confidence to face an audience.”

Kharbat says he was pleasantly surprised at the “substantial intrinsic benefits” of the meetings, such as becoming a better listener, taking on leadership roles in the club and, most of all, meeting people from a broad spectrum of professions and backgrounds.

“One thing all the Toastmasters say is they wish they had found the club earlier in their lives and careers,” he says. “So look up your local club today and drop by for a visit. You’ll be surprised how much fun the meetings are.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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