Eight months ago I joined Toastmasters. I will never be able to watch a Lotusphere session (or any other presentation) the same way again. Did you ever wonder what it’s like to present at Lotusphere? On the positive side it must be rewarding just to be selected. You’ve been chosen by IBM as one who stands out among your peers. On the other hand, giving a presentation is challenging and even more so when presenting somewhere like Lotusphere in front of your peers where you are expected to be the subject matter expert. More people fear public speaking than anything else, even more than dying. For most technology experts, their expertise lies in the technology, not in public speaking. They may give presentations just a few times a year. Even without the fear of public speaking, it is difficult to be good at it without frequent practice. Imagine if you only administered your servers or wrote code a few times each year? Quite a challenge. So as you watch their presentations, keep that in mind. It’s not easy.
On the other hand, if you find yourself speaking at Lotusphere or anywhere else for that matter, consider this: you’re already an expert at your subject matter. So if you’re trying to improve the quality of your presentation, you’ll probably get the biggest return on investment of your time by honing your communication skills rather than your topic competence. There are a few speakers out there like Chris Miller and Mat Newman, who have somehow mastered the techniques AND know what they’re talking about. But for the rest of us, it takes lots of practice and feedback. And I have stumbled upon what I think is the best venue for this. It’s Toastmasters. If a Toastmasters club meets somewhere near you, join it. Toastmasters is one of the very best paths to develop good communication skills that you will find. Toastmasters is an international non-profit organization of people who want to improve on their communication and leadership skills. It’s a fantastic way to minimize your weaknesses in public speaking in a positive, supportive, and fun environment. You will uncover things like
- How many times do you say ‘uh’, ‘um’, ‘so’, or ‘you know’ while giving even a short 5 minute presentation?
- Do you commit “death by Powerpoint” (or Symphony Presentations)?
- Do you ramble on without pauses for emphasis?
- Talk monotone without any inflection or energy in your voice?
- Are your slides packed with text and complex graphics?
- Do you read your slides to the audience?
- Do you use gestures and body language and make use of the whole stage or do you lock yourself in behind the security of the podium and stand motionless?
- Do you read from a script (e.g. Open General Session!) or worse, do you try to memorize your speech?
You get the idea. Whether you are currently a presenter or aspire to become one, until you have mastered all of the skills (and even the best speakers practice to improve), you should practice and get feedback from people who know the intricacies of public speaking and can help you can improve. (I’m not talking about the feedback forms at the end of the sessions. They mostly cover content, not delivery, and the observers are not watching with a critical eye for communication skills, they are there to learn the content.) Toastmasters is a great place to do this is.
I have been in Toastmasters for less than a year and while my peers in the club give me great praise and support, I learn every time I give a presentation or evaluate someone else giving theirs. If you think you’re good enough already, check out this list of famous people who are in Toastmasters.