How to Build Confidence Speaking in Public

What I’ve learned from Toastmasters about becoming a better public speaker (hint: it takes practice)

Maya Hampton
Dec 3, 2019 · 12 min read
silver corded microphone in shallow focus
silver corded microphone in shallow focus
Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

Are you terrified by the thought of giving a speech? When speaking up in front of a crowd, are you hit with a jolt of anxiety that causes your heart to race and your hands to start sweating or trembling?

Do you wish you felt more confident speaking up in meetings or giving presentations?

You’re not alone — it’s estimated that as much as 75 percent of the population has some level of anxiety regarding public speaking.

I used to feel that way, too. I still do, if I’m being completely honest. But I have found ways to overcome this fear with the help of my local Toastmasters club, and I want to share some of those lessons with you.

Anyone can become better at speaking in public. While some people have a natural gift for talking, most great speakers develop their skills over time, and you can too with the right kind of practice and self-awareness.

My journey from writer to speaker

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read and write. I enjoy the solitude and space it provides me to think creatively and organize my thoughts.

In my job, I’m often asked to give presentations and lead meetings. When it was my time to speak, my throat would dry up and my mind would suddenly go blank. After my nerves got me off to a shaky start, I’d catch myself stuttering or rambling my way through a presentation. Later I’d think of all the things I should have said or points I could have made more clearly.

I was much less confident about my ability to clearly communicate my ideas on the spot, without the luxury of time to edit and revise.

Feedback from my peers and managers after a presentation were often generic platitudes (“good job!” “nice slides!”) — but I knew that I needed to develop my speaking skills, and sought more constructive feedback.

To get different results, I knew I’d have to do something different.

Earlier this year, I saw a poster for the local Toastmasters club that meets weekly at my work and decided it was the perfect opportunity to push myself out of my cozy comfort zone.

I didn’t know what all I was signing up for, but after the first meeting, I knew that it would the ideal supportive environment to develop and hone my skills.

Now I still feel that initial anxiety that causes my hands to tremble, but the thought of giving a presentation is a lot less scary. With a mindset shift, I now can see that an opportunity to present is a chance to test and keep growing my speaking skills. I’ve learned some valuable skills to calm myself and project confidence when speaking in public, and have had the chance the practice them regularly.

If you’ve heard of Toastmasters, you may know that it’s a club where people practice giving speeches — and maybe that was enough to scare you off from considering joining. But effective public speaking is about much more than giving a prepared speech. Active listening and the ability to speak clearly and confidently in impromptu situations are essential skills that can be developed with intentional practice. And Toastmasters provides just the right environment.

Read on for some of the insights I’ve learned about speaking with confidence in any setting.

Why it matters

If you identify with the earlier description of trembling hands and crippling anxiety about public speaking, you might be wondering why you should even bother to overcome this common fear. Maybe you don’t have a job where you have to give presentations or speak publicly, and so you assume it’s not an essential skillset worth improving. Or at least it’s not worth the discomfort it causes.

Being able to clearly communicate your ideas, and present them in public, is a critical skill for anyone who wants to have an impact on the world. Public speaking is an essential leadership skill, as it can help you advance your career, grow your business, and move people to action.

To do any of these things well requires a fair amount of standing in front of an audience and delivering a pitch, an idea, or a body of work. And sometimes the only thing that stands between you and your audience is fear.

Anxiety, fear, stress, and performance are all related, as a 2013 Harvard Business School study found, and by changing your mindset, you can turn fear into excitement. Instead of feeling nervous or anxious, take a deep breath and tell yourself: ‘I feel excited.’ When people tell themselves to get excited, they perform better than they do when they tell themselves to calm down.

“When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking of all the things that could go badly. When they’re excited, they’re thinking of all the things that could go well,” said study author Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D.

Anxiety and excitement are both conditions of heightened awareness that activate similar feelings of arousal. While you can’t change your body’s physical sensations — you can change how your body interprets the sensations with the simple shift to positive thinking.

And once you can get past that initial uneasiness and build confidence through deliberate practice, you may find that speaking in public is not so bad, maybe even -gasp- enjoyable.

You may be surprised, like I’ve been, to find new things about speaking to enjoy. For example, unlike writing, you can make eye contact with your audience and see how people react in real-time — you don’t have to wait and see if anyone reads your story or replies to that long email you sent. And I’ve learned to appreciate the ephemeral nature of speaking — when it’s over, it’s over! No more long nights of edits and revisions.

In time, you might even find yourself seeking out opportunities to speak, or at least not running away from the thought. This will set you apart from the majority of people who avoid speaking in public and can give you a huge advantage in many areas of life.

What is Toastmasters?

Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs.

Toastmaster clubs have been meeting since 1924, and their mission today remains the same — to help people from diverse backgrounds become more confident speakers, communicators, and leaders.

Local clubs meet regularly and follow roughly the same agenda. I’m fortunate to have a club that meets at my workplace, but even our meetings are open to the public. Each meeting has prepared speeches, evaluations for each speech, and the opportunity for impromptu speaking during a part of the meeting called Table Topics.

Club members also rotate through the various support roles that help guide the meeting. As a new member, filling these roles creates an opportunity to speak, as well as to learn some essential communication skills. I’ve found the regular meeting cadence and constructive feedback built into the agenda helps create the perfect setting for deliberate practice to build self-confidence and self-awareness.

Lessons from Toastmasters to improve your communication skills

Even if you’re already somewhat confident speaking in public, there are likely ways you can still improve your communication skills.

In the age of the TED talk, there are endless articles online with tips about giving the perfect presentation or pitching your startup.

There are some very practical and commonly-shared skills for prepared speeches — know your topic, create visual aids, and practice until you don’t have to rely on notes.

When I joined Toastmasters, these were the skills I expected to improve, and have had the opportunity to work on.

But I’ve also learned that there is much more to being a savvy communicator then giving a well-prepared speech. Improving your skills in areas such as active listening, giving feedback, and impromptu storytelling can help increase your confidence as a speaker and a leader.

Here are some examples of what I’ve learned early on in my Toastmasters journey, and ways you can practice developing these skills.

simple line drawing of person standing at a podium
simple line drawing of person standing at a podium

Be a good host

The Toastmaster for each meeting is the host and director. They start and end the meeting, greet guests and introduce speakers, and transition between topics to keep the meeting flowing.

As the Toastmaster, you practice facilitation skills that come in handy whether you’re leading a meeting or being the host of your corner at a party.

Try for yourself: Offer to facilitate a meeting or workshop. Break the ice at a party or gathering and introduce people that don’t know each other and help lead the conversation to find common ground. Volunteer to say a few words at a memorial service or give a toast at a wedding. Practice stepping up at opportunities to lead, when others may not want to.

simple line drawing of speech bubbles
simple line drawing of speech bubbles

Watch for filler words

One aspect of public speaking that I’ve become more aware of since joining Toastmasters is the usage of verbal crutches by many inexperienced or nervous speakers.

I’ve realized how often people overuse certain filler words or sounds, even starting to catch myself in real-time.

What do I mean by verbal crutches and filler words?

These are words like ‘um’, ‘you know’, ‘and’, ‘so…’, etc. that creep into our presentations when we’re nervous or not sure what to say next. Many people habitually add these words without realizing it.

In each Toastmasters meeting, there’s a designated ‘Ah Counter’ who listens to all speakers and notes any overused words or filler sounds.

Once you start listening for these filler words, you’ll notice them everywhere. This new awareness is shocking at first, but it gives you something specific to pay attention to. Over time, you’ll realize how much these filler words impact the effectiveness of the speaker — even if the audience only notices it subconsciously, overreliance on these verbal crutches projects a lack of confidence and can discredit the speaker.

Try for yourself: Next time you’re at a company meeting, listen to your leaders — there’s bound to be at least one overusing certain crutch words. While you do that, count how many times they say ‘um’ or ‘so’.

Or record yourself speaking on a topic or practicing a presentation, then watch it and count the filler words. Pay attention to the actual words you’re saying. Know what words you tend to add and try to avoid using them.

What’s the fix? Whenever you notice yourself about to use a filler word, stop and take a short pause. As you develop an awareness of your own verbal crutches, try to take a breath instead of tossing out another ‘umm’. Your audience will assume the pause is intentional, or not even notice.

simple line drawing of a stopwatch
simple line drawing of a stopwatch

Don’t talk too much

Another supporting role in Toastmaster meetings is the timer, who keeps track of the time that each speaker is talking, and lets them know when they’re over or under the targeted time.

Attention is a scarce resource. Prepared speeches are usually 5–7 minutes, which is about the length of time you’ll be able to keep an audience engaged.

I have a tendency to want to cram as much information as possible into a presentation and can ramble along if I’m not paying attention to the time. Timing my presentations while practicing helps me know when I need to be more concise and to the point.

Try for yourself: Start a timer for 5–7 minutes when you’re practicing a speech or presentation (or the length you’ll need to speak for if there’s a limit). Time segments of your speech to see if you’re spending too much or too little time on any specific area.

simple line drawing of book with a question mark in magnifying glass
simple line drawing of book with a question mark in magnifying glass

Grow your vocabulary

The Grammarian role in Toastmaster meetings introduces the Word of the Day, including a definition and usage examples. Encouraging meeting participants to incorporate this word into their speaking helps improve the vocabulary of the club and showcases various ways of using the word.

Grammarians also pay attention to language and grammar usage and take note of any interesting phrases or misuse of language, which they report on at the end of the meeting.

There’s a lot of overlap here with writing — good writers seek to avoid using cliches and mix up their vocabulary to prevent sounding repetitive.

Try for yourself: If you come across a new word while reading, stop and look it up. Keep track of interesting turns of phrase. Try using these new words and phrases in conversation, and keep growing your vocabulary. The thesaurus is your friend.

simple line drawing of two people sitting at a table
simple line drawing of two people sitting at a table

Practice impromptu speaking

Table Topics is the impromptu speaking section of every Toastmasters meeting. The Table Topics Master prepares a set of questions and calls randomly on club members to give a 1–2 minute response.

These opportunities to speak on the spot helps members develop their ability to organize their thoughts quickly and express them clearly and succinctly. If you can’t think of a relevant answer to the question, you can also practice pivoting and telling another interesting story on the spot, which is great practice for keeping a conversation going through awkward moments or dead-end questions.

Impromptu speaking skills often get less attention, but these are the skills you’re likely to need most in day-to-day communications.

Try for yourself: The best way to improve your impromptu speaking skills is by practicing. In conversation, or when someone asks you a question after a presentation, try to think of a short (1 minute) and interesting story to share that will be more engaging and memorable than a generic yes/no.

simple line drawing of people and speech bubbles
simple line drawing of people and speech bubbles

Learn how to give and receive feedback

Evaluation is the heart of the Toastmasters educational program. People join Toastmasters clubs to improve their speaking and leadership skills, and these skills are improved through evaluations.

Each prepared speaker has an evaluator to provide the speaker with feedback, in addition to written evaluations from club members identifying strengths and opportunities. Because the environment is so supportive and constructive, at least in our club, getting feedback doesn’t feel scary. It’s the main reason many people join, after all, myself included.

Objective feedback from experienced speakers and honest audience members is enormously helpful in developing better speaking skills. Over time, it’s really incredible to see how people work with this feedback and progressively improve their weaker areas.

But I’ve also found that the opportunity to be an evaluator and give feedback can be just as valuable. It improves your active listening and critical thinking skills, and you can practice giving positive feedback.

Giving helpful feedback is one of the most valuable communication skills that people overlook.

Evaluations have taught me how to give better feedback, and listening to thoughtful evaluations from other club members helps me discover insights that I can apply in my own speaking.

Some Toastmasters like the “sandwich” approach, where a suggestion for improvement is sandwiched between two positive comments.

Another favorite approach is the 3–2–1, where you identify three things they did well, two things they could improve, and one challenge.

Evaluation forms that break out specific areas to focus can also help you understand all various elements of a good speech, and provides a common language for giving feedback. Resources from Toastmasters and other clubs, such as this Speech Evaluation Form, can be especially useful guides.

Try for yourself: Pay attention when you see someone speaking, and think about what they’re doing that’s effective, and where they could improve. Be specific. Watch videos online of Toastmaster speeches or TED talks and practice evaluating the various aspects of their presentation. You’ll also start learning more things you can do to improve your own speaking techniques.

Conclusion

Mastering public speaking doesn’t happen overnight, or even after a few months or years. It’s a lifelong process to improve and refine your communication skills, and it takes practice and self-awareness.

Joining a group like Toastmasters is a great way to practice your public speaking regularly, with little pressure and a positive environment. If it’s not clear after reading this far, if you truly want to conquer public speaking anxiety, I’d recommend looking up a Toastmaster club near you and reaching out to see if you can attend an upcoming meeting as a guest.

I can’t vouch for all clubs or advanced Toastmaster events and speaking contests. But in my experience, and especially for beginners, the opportunity for consistent practice and constructive feedback is essential for leveling up your communication skills. It’s also a great chance to grow your network and meet new people who are similarly driven to self-improvement.

You can still improve your public speaking skills through intentional practice on your own, and by evaluating and learning from other speakers through some of the techniques I’ve shared in this article.

The smallest changes can make the biggest difference if applied with dedication and commitment, and I hope that what you’ve read will be as useful for you as it has been for me, and you can deliver your next toast, presentation, or speech with greater confidence.

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Maya Hampton

Written by

Digital professional, creative life. Product manager for design systems at REI.

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