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Uhm, ah, er, would you like to improve your, uhm, ah, public speaking skills?

Prior to Harvard Business School, I thought a great deal about what I wanted to focus on during my eighteen month “vacation.” The list was long and included activities similar to many of my peers: traveling to exotic places, contemplating the future, seeking interesting business ideas, spending money as if I had endless amounts of it, etc. On a more personal front, I realized that it would be the perfect opportunity to work on a few things that I always deferred to do “later.” One of those things was to improve my public speaking skills.

I have always been in awe of individuals who can truly captivate an audience. Is it a gift or a learned skill? Like many of you, I have had ample amounts of opportunities speaking in front of groups of all sizes. But no matter how much experience I had, the ability to truly captivate my audience and feel comfortable speaking in front of them still somewhat eluded me.

Fortunately, HBS has an organization called Toastmasters that is solely dedicated to improving one’s communication skills. Self-improvement should be a never-ending pursuit and what better opportunity to practice than while on “vacation?”

Toastmasters exists for the mere purpose of helping individuals become more effective speakers. At its meetings, classmates give either prepared or impromptu speeches. Prepared speakers are critiqued by their peers and given constructive feedback ranging from delivery effectiveness to how many “ahs and uhms” they sputtered unknowingly.
Yet, there is also an element of spontaneity to assist members with impromptu speaking, which, in my opinion, is perhaps the more difficult of the two. By attending these meetings, you won’t just be listening. There is no such thing as passive audience participation. Instead, you may find yourself in front of your fellow peers having to discuss for two (seemingly endless) minutes about topics ranging from current affairs to details about your favorite color and why.

Furthermore, Toastmasters varies its meeting formats to address different speaking environments. These various environments include: speaking in a large venue (which we did in Burden Auditorium), using business presentations to augment one’s effectiveness, and speaking on TV. If you are interested in practicing in front of the camera, the next Toastmasters meeting slated for Monday, March 11th, 2002, provides an excellent opportunity.

As we all know, public speaking is a common source of stress for everyone. Although many of us would like to avoid this problem entirely, it is difficult to do so. Whether we work alone or with large numbers of people, eventually we will need to speak in public to get certain tasks accomplished. And if we want to be leaders or achieve anything meaningful in our lives (which I know we all do), we will often need to speak to groups, large and small, to be successful.

I highly recommend taking advantage of Toastmasters. The time commitment is minimal and the benefits are priceless. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best), I still wouldn’t rate myself a 10, but do feel more confident in my ability as a result of taking advantage of Toastmasters. Those feelings of sweaty palms, racing heart beats and total nervousness never go away (nor should they ever). However, I can honestly state that being an active member of this organization has enabled me to become more self-aware of my speaking abilities, help me find my voice and use it more effectively.

March 11, 2002
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