Getting Your Feet Wet in Toastmasters: Tips for Newbies

April 22, 2013

Toastmasters Speaker

So you made the decision to finally join Toastmasters. That’s an important first step. But what’s next? What are you going to speak about and what’s the best way to write a speech? These are just some questions new Toastmasters have when joining a club. I hope to answer some questions and provide tips for newer members.

What am I going to speak about?

This is a question I hear quite often. The simple answer: anything you want. I would highly recommend that you speak about anything you feel passionate about (things, ideas, causes, etc.) or anything interesting you encounter in your daily life. Is there an interesting person you see on your way to work everyday? Do you have an unusual hobby? Any of this would make a fun and interesting speech.

There is a woman at my club who has taught art for a number of years. She often speaks about different aspects of art and has exhibited a lot of her work. Her passion for art is noticeable and contagious. Whether it is intentional or not, she has inspired a lot of our club members to have a greater appreciation for art. Think about what sorts of memories and emotions you want to leave behind through your speeches.

If you’re still having trouble thinking of ideas about what to speak about, try mind-mapping. The process of getting your ideas onto paper and connecting different words and ideas is helpful

If you’re still having trouble coming up with ideas, take a shower. I can’t explain it, but taking a shower has always helped me come up with ideas for writing and speaking. I know I’m not the only one. Give it a try.

While it can be liberating to be able to speak about anything you want…it can sometimes feel overwhelming. One important tip: don’t wait until the last minute to come up with ideas. Let the ideas simmer in your mind.

What’s the best way to write a speech?

“Begin with the end in mind” – Stephen Covey

Just as there are different styles of learning (visual, auditory and kinesthetic), there are different ways to write a speech. I don’t believe there is any one right way to write a speech. I’ve heard of people writing their speeches out word for word. If this works for you, great. I prefer to create my speeches using a stream of consciousness method. One thing that is probably unanimous…you should begin your speechwriting process with an outline.

Toastmasters Speech Outline

Remember to include the key parts of your speech: the opening, middle and conclusion. Keep in mind that the opening of your speech is the most important part. It grabs the attention of your audience and draws them in. Don’t start your speech with an opening that begins with, “today I’m going to talk about….” This is an opening line that’s boring and forgettable. It also states the obvious.

However, say you were giving a speech about the quality of the drinking water in your town. You might begin your speech with a question: “Did you know that the water you drink could be making you sick?” An opening line like that would get the audience’s attention quickly.

The conclusion of your speech is almost as important as the opening. A good ending will help make your topic and your ideas more memorable.

Once I have written a memorable opening line, an organized body and a memorable conclusion created in my outline, I begin to verbalize my speech. I’ll also pull out my stopwatch or iPhone and begin to get a sense on how much time I have used. At this point in the process, my speech is typically a minute or two over time and I will have to cut some content. I usually do this in the practice phase of the speech. This leads to another big question…

What is the best way to practice my speech?

“The unprepared speaker has a right to be afraid” – Ralph Smedley, founder of Toastmasters

Again, there probably is no one right way to practice. The important thing is that you do practice. Ideally, you’ll practice a lot. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give you if you’re serious about becoming a good speaker, it would be that you need to put in the time to practice. Upon joining Toastmasters, we are told that, “you get out of Toastmasters what you put in.” I believe this is where practice is encouraged.

At this point in time you’ve come up with a good idea for a speech and you’ve got an outline written out and know basically what you want to say. Now it’s time to find a quiet, private place at home where you can begin begin to practice. This means you might have to clear things with your family, significant other or roommate to reserve a quiet place.

Then you’ll want to practice your speech out loud and possibly in front of a mirror. The mirror will help you get a sense of what your facial expressions and gestures look like as you recite your speech. Again, you might want to grab your iPhone or stopwatch and begin to get a sense of whether you can fit your speech in the allotted time. This is the point in the process where I begin to trim my speech. As speechwriters, we need to feel comfortable with trimming our speeches and cutting out content that is not important. Just as Twitter forces us to get to the point by giving us 140 characters, Toastmasters forces us to do the same with our speeches. Most of the speeches are between 5 and 7 minutes. While that might sound like a lot of time, it can get challenging to finish a speech within that time.

When I first joined my club, there was a former actor who delivered the most impressive speeches. No matter what he spoke about, he delivered his speeches with confidence and clarity. He owned the room. He had me mesmerized. Soon after, he shared one of the secrets to his success…he practiced…a lot. He said he would practice each speech out loud 20 or 30 times. While most of us probably thought that he really didn’t need to practice that much, I began to realize that’s exactly why he was so good.

From that point on, I dedicated myself to being fully prepared for every speech I delivered. By practicing more, I began to rely on my notes less. This was a liberating feeling and my confidence grew.

With an interesting topic and a well-written and prepared speech, your confidence can (and will) grow, too. In a short period of time you will go from a Toastmaster newbie to a confident, compelling speaker. I promise.

How about you…what are your biggest challenges as a new speaker and a newer member of Toastmasters? How do you overcome these?

Flickr Creative Commons Toastmasters photo courtesy of shainelee.

For more on this topic, please visit my post Six Reasons You Should Join Toastmasters.