Your dog is your best speech evaluator
Why Toastmasters need to practice speeches in front of dogs
The focus of my speech was on how to handle tech-related fumbles during a live performance. I had a Google Slides presentation on my foldable laptop, large enough so people could see the images. I’d practiced vocal variety and how to work the stage. But while I was talking, one person jumped up to loudly argue on her phone. Another person complained that my photographs were still too little even in full-screen mode. A third crowd member decided he wanted to have a semantics debate with me mid-sentence and rolled his eyes. A fourth person lost interest altogether and started texting on his phone while two more audience members looked bored out of their minds or turned to chat with a neighbor.
In all of the speeches I gave to earn Presentation Mastery proficiency in Toastmasters, this was the rudest behavior I’d ever encountered. And it took everything in me not to start cracking up laughing. Why? These audience members were carefully chosen to be part of my “Managing a Difficult Audience” speech in Level 4 of Pathways. Their entire goal was to throw me off during the speech.
In all of the speeches I gave to earn Presentation Mastery proficiency in Toastmasters, this was the rudest behavior I’d ever encountered. And it took everything in me not to start cracking up laughing.
No matter how many other certification roles I’ve earned (Competent Communicator, Competent Leader, Advanced Communicator Bronze), that “Managing a Difficult Audience” speech is still my favorite one and the most useful. I wasn’t sure how often I would use these skills or if I would ever have that many rude people around during a speech, but it turns out that I needed to learn those tips more than I ever thought I would.
How did I find out? A Brittany Spaniel and a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard dog put me to the test.
The Talker. This person gives answers that are entirely too long and tends to try to dominate the conversation, often in the Q&A session of a meeting and sometimes interrupts you right in the middle of talking.
What a dog taught me about The Talker. I was all set to have a video conference call with an attorney and explain how a blog platform worked. I’d pulled out statistics, sign-up information and case studies. I made sure to walk the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard dog ahead of time, feed her and play with her for at least 30 minutes to wear her out. She was napping when the call started. But as soon as the attorney’s face showed up onscreen, this quietly napping dog jumped up and decided to play with every single squeaky toy, bump balls and bark at random people outside. At one point, she jumped into my lap and all you could see was her profile on top and my boobs in a blouse on the bottom. That ridiculous visual made us both laugh during the video conference call and made the call less technical and more fun to do.
The Interrupter. This is the person who just cannot wait for you to finish your point. He wants his question answered now and would prefer you skip straight to the end of the conversation.
What a dog taught me about The Interrupter. I happily played with a Tug-of-War toy with the Brittany Spaniel. I would take off running full speed with one end of the toy and she chased behind me, pulling the other side. She knew this game well. But I had work to do and sat in my dining room, ready to record instruction videos for a student panel. But every single time I tried to record the student guide videos, the Brittany would bump my feet, rub her paws on my lap and then slap my calf with the toy. She wanted to play and had no intention of waiting. Luckily I was sitting in a bar chair in which you could only see me from the chest-up, so unless the viewer heard the jiggling of her tags, you’d have no idea that this dog was terrorizing the bottom half of my body.
The Chatterer. This is the person who has random fun facts and wants your audience to talk about something more interesting to her.
What a dog taught me about The Chatterer. In the middle of a phone call discussing tax concerns and estate planning, the Brittany decided she’d had enough of people coming through the lobby door. While she’d already made herself the Neighborhood Watch to monitor anyone going by my windows or the pathway, this time she decided she didn’t want to just quietly gawk from the window sill and my couch. She wanted to sit directly under the table where I was and loudly bark over everything I said. Instead of trying to over-talk the barking, I patiently listened to the person on the other end (with my phone on mute) and hoped she’d settle down by the time it was my turn to speak again. And then my smartphone went off out of nowhere. Then a doorbell buzzed. Everything unrelated to this estate planning call happened in less than 60 seconds of the call.
The Arguer. This is the person who has a different take on your opinion and cannot wait to tell you what it is, usually to start a disagreement.
What a dog taught me about The Arguer. I’d been given a freelance editing assignment to edit an entire website, white papers included. The biggest problem was that the hiring manager was going out of town in a matter of hours and left this giant assignment in the hands of his boss, who didn’t know me, along with a team of website editors from India, who had a language barrier. The boss gave me one set of directions. The hiring manager gave me another. And the people from India didn’t get either set of directions. I scrambled to finish this assignment in time, but all three parties claimed that they didn’t get any of my work back. (I’d turned it in two days earlier.) While I was on a call explaining all of this and figuring out where in Google Drive these documents disappeared to, the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard dog decided she needed to go outside — nonnegotiable. The last thing I needed to do was walk anybody’s dog. But you’ll never out-argue a dog when nature has called. When a dog has to go, you go. Otherwise, you clean. I grabbed my tablet, my phone, my coat and a running leash, and answered emails and additional calls while the dog happily walked on.
The Silent Type. Shyness, insecurity, indifference and uncertainty will get the best of this speaker. This person is so uncomfortable talking that you probably shouldn’t put her on the spot in a room full of people. She is not at all interested in unwanted attention and barely wants to be there herself.
What a dog taught me about The Silent Type. Fortunately, I’ve had really good luck with cats — who may be a better speech evaluator for this trait. They’re usually unimpressed with everybody and let you know they’re indifferent about you the minute you walk in the door.
Recommended Read: “When a dog lover understands cat lovers”
But if you’re a dog walker or dog boarder, you’ve more than likely experienced the dog who isn’t quite sure what to make of you. He’s not sure why his owner left and who gave you keys to his home. He’s not sure why you’re feeding him, talking in a high voice or grabbing his leash. And quite frankly, he’d much rather have his owner there than you. After completing 415 walks with 74 different dogs, I’ve experienced this “audience member” countless times— including the one dog who kept banging his head against the glass and drooling to make sure I did not come inside. When you step into any dog’s home or one steps into your home, there is going to be that awkward time frame where the dog is feeling you out. Shy or indifferent human audience members (usually) won’t bite you if they’re not into you. However, an uncertain dog is one you should never be too aggressive to interact with. Be gentle. Be patient. Be kind. And do a whole lot of smooth talking (even telling random stories) to get this dog to like you.