Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why Join Toastmasters?

"I'm an extrovert so public speaking shouldn't be a problem, right??"

This was the question I repeatedly asked myself prior to joining Toastmasters. I just couldn't understand why public speaking sometimes gave me heart palpitations. I am often told that I rarely meet a stranger yet place me in front of a group of people and watch my confidence go right out the window. At times I am focused and effectively make my point; other times my nerves take over and it's a struggle to collect my thoughts. Since my job requires me to both speak in group settings and to facilitate meetings, the ability to effectively communicate my thoughts is a must. I saw joining Toastmasters as a personal investment. And I am happy to report that the investment has shown dividends.

Toastmasters has provided me a supportive place to strengthen my public speaking skills and build confidence. The feedback provided in club meetings by my fellow Toastmasters is invaluable. By attending and participating in meetings, I continue to improve as a public speaker while having fun at it. Yes, I used public speaking and fun in the same sentence.

Guess what the most important lessons I have learned at Toastmasters are? First off, there isn't a magical public speaking gene some are born with. Most great speakers work at being great. Secondly, the fear of public speaking is VERY common. And last but not least, with practice your fear lessens. I am living proof of that. I encourage anyone struggling with public speaking to come visit a Toastmasters meeting and see what it's all about. Who knows, the great speaker in you may be waiting to be let out.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Area Winners including Lee Crosby & Lisa Holliday

Division E Winners feature Lisa Holliday


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Loudoun Toastmasters Humorous Speech & Table Topics WINNERS (FALL 2015)

Lee Crosby (Humorous Speech Winner)

Lisa Holliday (Table Topics Winner)      

Kevin O'Neil (Second Place)
Lesley Abashian (Second Place)


Monday, June 22, 2015

What do I write speeches about?

One of my Toastmasters mentees recently asked me this question. This is the advice I gave her.

The simple (and probably non-helpful) answer is "anything." Don't make the mistake of trying to come up with speech topics out of whole cloth. I once read something that radically changed how I look at preparing for these speeches: you could do the same speech for all ten CC manual speeches, just tweaking it each time for whatever that assignment is emphasizing.

So, here's a list of ideas:
  • Hobbies: what are you interested in that you think others might be? I have done four total manual speeches on different aspects of Star Trek (and discovered a few "closet Trekkies" in the process :-). I also did a speech combining public speaking skills and the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga, of which I am a practitioner.
  • Interesting things you've read about: I did a model speech (also storytelling manual speech) on St Peter from the Bible, when he denied Jesus three times and Jesus later redeemed him. I also did a speech on how to learn a foreign language, which I used for two manual speeches (CC #8 and #9).
  • Your job: what's cool, or interesting, or little-known, or encouraging, about your job or jobs you've had? I did a speech on APIs, which is a big part of my job.
  • Messages you want to get out there: my CC#10 speech, which I also used as a contest speech and as several speeches from the Storytelling advanced manual, was on women's situational awareness for self-protection. It was actually not a very good contest speech, though I won a club level with it, but it was such an important message I wanted to get it out there.

See a theme? (1) Speaking on things I know about. (2) Using essentially the same speech multiple times, tweaking it each time. I used that basic Star Trek material for four different speeches.

Obviously, each speech was different, but I only had to do the research once. Don't reinvent the wheel every speech. That's actually real-life, by the way: absolutely no speaker out there actually writes new speeches each time. You re-use lots of previous material, customizing it for the occasion and audience.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

New England School of Law 2015 Commencement Address

Last Friday, I had the honor and privilege to watch my daughter, Justine, graduate from the New England School of Law. The Honorable Ralph D. Gants, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, presented the commencement address. As a Toastmaster, I have been trained to listen to speeches with a constructively critical ear. Judge Gants didn?t let me down.

He combined humor with a serious message to these 200 law graduates, inspiring them with a concise, purposeful delivery that opened and closed with a reference to the Star Wars movie franchise.

In the speech, he urged them to ignore the common ?nonsense? surrounding the law industry, giving brief but sound reasoning to his arguments:

1. That we have too many lawyers in our country
2. That we do not need lawyers, that all they do is slow us down and generate needless litigation
3. That only large law firm?s deal with the most challenging legal issues.
4. That all the innovation in our society is being driven by entrepreneurs, business people, and investment managers, and that lawyers are still doing law the same way they have for generations.
5. That law is no longer a vehicle for social change.

He opened and closed the speech, which lasted no longer than 10 minutes, with references to Jedi knights. A transcript of the speech can be read at

"May the force be with you!" (Kevin O?Neil, CC, Loudoun Toastmasters, May 28, 2015)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

7 Things to do when you give a short speech

7 Things to do when you give a short speech

(source: Inc. Magazine article by Bill Murphy Jr., published May 14, 2014)
  1. Decide to present 3 main points.
    An effective 5-7 minute speech allows you to present 3 messages-build your speech around only 3. And 3 is a good number-not too few or too many.
  2. Prepare and practice.
    Try out your speech in front of others, time your speech, and rewrite it; “polishing” will improve your message.
  3. Know when to quit.
    Once you’ve made you point, finish and sit down. And be sure to time your speech so that you stay within 5-7 minutes.
  4. Plot out the course of your speech.
    Plan on a minute for the opening and closing and a minute for each point. The extra two minutes will allow you to run over as you move through your speech. You may want to tell the audience things like, “that was my first point, here is my second”, etc.
  5. Give them something to look at while you’re talking.
    It gives them something to look at while you speak, something to visually remember to reinforce your message. It can be a prop, photograph, etc.
  6. Share a part of yourself
    Connect your personal experience, feeling, emotion, belief, etc. with your message. And let them hear it in your voice, facial expressions and body language.
  7. Make sure you are heard
    The best speeches are as much about making sure everyone can hear you and enunciating clearly as they are about preparing, organizing and practicing. Make sure where you are presenting allows everyone to hear, change your position in the audience or get audio equipment if necessary.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Table Topics - Lose the Fear and Have Fun!

Photo Courtesy Robbie Grubs
We all know that suddenly being asked to speak in front of a group can be a bit nerve wracking and to some even scary. That is exactly what the Table Topics portion of a standard Toastmasters meeting is designed to help.

During this section of the meeting the Topics Master will pose questions, based on the theme, to people at random. Chosen participants, usually those not speaking or performing another role, will then give a one-to-two minute off-the-cuff or extemporaneous speech.

In the May 7th meeting, Toastmaster Chip Vann shared these suggestions to help us prepare for the occasion.
  1.  One way to prepare early for a table topics is to build an outline in your head as soon as you find out the theme. Tonight's theme was Mother's Day. Identify your point and a couple of references to support that - keep it brief. Also draft a way to conclude it. Then, whatever the question is, adapt your TT speech to fit the thought you already prepared.
  2. It is best to come to the front, but if you are a guest, you may just stand where you are. Members and any others who are comfortable do come to the front to gain more experience in the speaking space.
  3. Remember, you have almost no time to prepare and everyone knows that. So don't worry about your speech, we generally have low expectations.
  4. Have fun with it, it's a great way to participate in the meeting as a guest.
Lastly, you might just win a ribbon!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Add Power Pose to Your Speech Prep

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman
Have you ever had to psych yourself up before you give a speech? Do you sit up with your chest open wide ready to run on stage or do you sit in your chair with your arms crossed, head slightly dipped, awaiting the Toastmaster to introduce you so you can get it over with? I used to fall into the latter category until I listened to Amy Cuddy's presentation on the Power of Posture and Non-Verbal Communication.

Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School professor, and her colleagues conducted a study about the relationship between posture and confidence to better understand why some students participate more than others in class - participation being  a significant portion of the student's grade.

One of the findings of the study showed a direct correlation between posture and the levels of cortisol and testosterone. Cortisol is the hormone related to anxiety and testosterone is known as the dominance hormone. The test showed that participants who held a power pose - one that opens the chest and makes the person "bigger" - for just two minutes had marked increases in testosterone and therefore confidence. The reverse was also shown in participants who held a low power pose - making oneself smaller by slouching or holding arms closer to the body - by higher levels of cortisol physiologically increasing anxiety.

The helpful hint from these findings is to add holding a power position for two minutes before you deliver your next speech and you will not only FEEL, but will actually BE more confident in your delivery.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Loudoun Toastmasters Apr 16 2015 meeting - “Play Ball!”

Meeting opened by Dan Heck, Sgt @ Arms orchestrated delightfully by Sue Alexander with great baseball references in her opening remarks. A very clever Helpful Hint by Julie Halstead demonstrating how easy it can be to find and develop a story with no notice by merely focusing on an object and asking yourself, “How is life like this object?” taken from Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates.”

Jill Ryan taught us the fine art of book publishing with her speech “I Have a Book In Me”. Lee Crosby won best speaker for his valuable message to all adults, have fun the way kids have fun, in his speech, “Serious Fun” Rob Lin powerfully persuaded us how to work back into  physical fitness with the proper approach to diet and exercise  with his speech, “It’s That Time Again” (beach season is approaching).

Table Topics Master Jo Weaver pitched some clever baseball  related questions to Jim Bapst, Julie Halstead, Brenda Jenkins, Kim Holcomb and the eventual winner, Rick Halstead who reminded us to reward ourselves for good behavior (in his case, regular doses of dark chocolate!)

Gary Bisaga reminded all of the April 30 speech–a-thon and his
competition in the Division Contest this Saturday. Supporting roles by Brenda Jenkins, Grammarian, Jim Bapst Ah Counter, Kim Holcomb, Timer

In conclusion, remember, public speaking is like baseball:

  • “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way” as Babe Ruth said.
  • And as Yogi Berra paraphrased, “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half physical!"

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Battle of the Titans - Drop the Prop?

This is the first of what I hope will become an ongoing series: Battle of the Titans! In this series, I hope to compare and contrast speaking advice given by two giants in the field of public speaking to see the nuances that you don't get from either alone.

Our question today:
Drop the Prop?
  • Our first Titan is Ryan Avery, 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking. In his free three-part presentation on public speaking (you have to sign up for his newsletter to download it), Ryan gives the advice "Drop the Prop." Namely, you should not use props, and for two reasons. First, because they can be distracting. If you bring out a basketball, what will people be looking at the rest of the time? The basketball! Anything that distracts your audience from looking at you is Bad. (For the same reason, Darren Lacroix, 2001 World Champion, says the key to presentation slides is the "B" or "blank" key on your clicker; you want people looking at you, and not the screen.) Secondly, by not showing the prop, people can personalize it in their own minds. He gives the example of people wanting him to bring bunny slippers as a prop, but then demonstrates that the color was not what most people would have guessed. He didn't want them thinking things like "wow, that's an odd color" or "I always think of bunny slippers as being red." So, one of Ryan's rhyming points is "Drop the Prop."
  • Our second Titan is Craig Valentine, 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking. In his excellent Edge of their Seats Storytelling course, Craig suggests sometimes using a prop such as a statue to give a lesson. One reason is that, when people see the prop years later, they may think back to the lesson you gave. It can also cement that lesson into the listeners' minds.
So, do we have a conflict between the Titans? I don't think so, and here's why.
  • I suspect that any kind of prop Craig would recommend bringing up would be small, not brought out until you needed it, and put away and hidden afterward.
  • Craig's prop example (statue) was for a particular purpose in the story. It was to cement the story's lesson into the listener's mind, to serve as a reminder years later.
  • Ryan's prop examples (basketball, bunny slippers) were more or less for the purpose of entertainment. The bunny slipper suggestion, for example, was from somebody saying that putting bunny slippers around the stage would help the audience picture his mom better. But do you really need a pair of bunny slippers to picture somebody's mom?
The difference, I suggest, is not in actual advice. Craig is saying use a prop if it has a real, organic purpose in your story and will make a difference in the audience's lives. Ryan is saying don't use a prop for cosmetic, entertainment, or pure stagecraft purposes.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lead with a Joke^H^H^H^H Story

I am currently reading "How to Win the World Championship of Public Speaking: Secrets of the International Speech Contest" by Jeremey Donovan. He goes in great detail through each of the 9 finals speeches of the 2012 World Championship of Public Speaking, bringing in examples from World Champion speakers since the late 1980's. I am just reading the chapter on storytelling. The author reveals interesting facts. In the 27 years covered by the book,

  • Nineteen of the winning speeches started with a story
  • Fourteen started with a personal story, meaning five started with a story not about them
  • Only two of the five, and none since 1987, never transitioned into a personal story
  • Among the speeches that didn't start with a story, most quickly transitioned into a personal story; Darren Lacroix's "Ouch" (2001) and Lance Miller's "The Ultimate Question" (2005) are examples, quickly moving into personal stories after an opening attention-getting question.
It should be clear that most great speeches eventually turn into personal stories. Think about the best and most memorable speeches you've heard; think about the last keynote speaker who was not a total bore. Think of the last seminar speech that didn't have you stifling a yawn after 30 minutes. They almost always seem to come back to meaningful personal stories, meaningful to the speaker and meaningful to us. Darren Lacroix says "it's not the speech that you give, it's the life that you live." (He loves coming up with Darren-isms like this.) He assures us we have most likely lived that kind of life.

If there is anybody reading this, you are probably thinking "I don't have any stories that would interest anybody." Storyteller and speaker Deanna Moffitt said in her What the Speak podcast that she works with people all the time who finally get down to admitting, yeah, they probably have two or three stories in them. Yet she, too, assures us that they do have many, many stories in them.

I totally get where these people are coming from. In fact, I look back on my life and, sure I could probably come up with a couple of stories that people would not be totally disappointed to hear. But no way could I ever come up with even one story that would inspire people, let alone enough stories to make up two winning speeches (the minimum you'd need to win the World Championship of Public Speaking); and having enough stories to make up major hour-long keynote speeches is totally out of the question.

Yet, here I am, hoping to be a professional speaker some day. Knowing that if I am to ever succeed, I'll have to find those stories. I have started keeping a "story journal" where I write down interesting things that happen. Darren says to pay particular attention to painful experiences, since great and inspiring stories live in those painful experiences. And, as Steve Allen said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Or as Scott Meyer amended it to in his thrice-weekly web comic Basic Instructions, "Comedy is my coworkers plus time." :-)

Until next time, find your stories well.

Friday, January 16, 2015

To thank the audience or not to thank the audience?

Note: This is a purely personal opinion and does not reflect what Toastmasters International or any particular club would say.

I've heard a bit of Toastmasters lore that frankly baffles me. Here's a typical example:
Don’t end by saying “Thank you.” It’s the audience who should thank you for the information you’ve shared. Instead, just close with your prepared ending and wait for the applause (or stand back from the lectern and nod at the Toastmaster of the meeting, saying, “Mr. [or Madam] Toastmaster”).
I am guessing the icebreaker manual itself is responsible for this idea:
Finish with your memorized conclusion. Some speakers say “thank you” at the very end to signal to the audience that they are finished, but this is not necessary. Instead, after you say your concluding words, nod at the Toastmaster of the meeting and say, “Mr. (or Madam) Toastmaster” and enjoy the applause.
My reaction to this is: seriously? Do we seriously think we don't owe the audience anything for their (presumably) rapt attention during our speech? Yes, the audience should be thanking us for our information, but as a speaker, I think we are at least as much in debt to our audience as they are to us. They should thank us, we should thank them.

My feeling is that this may just be one of those things that we do in Toastmasters we'd never do in the "real world" (TM) - like saying "Mr Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and honored guests..." at the beginning of a speech. One way to look at this is that these are artifices or affects that adapt the speech to the intended audience. It does kind of make sense: we should always adapt our speaking to our audiences, and this is an adaptation for Toastmasters. On the other hand, I don't want to be caught just saying "Mr. Director" at the end of one of my keynotes.

So, here's my take on it. Your mileage may vary, of course: this is just my personal approach:
  • In normal speeches in Toastmaster meetings, I never use either of these two shibboleths. I don't think I should be reinforcing habits in Toastmasters that go directly against what I'd do in the "real world."
  • In contests, on the other hand, I would be careful to use both of them. We are being judged for points, and judges (being longtime Toastmasters) will likely apply informal and unspoken rules like these.
I note that Daren Lacroix, in his world championship speech of 2001, used the greeting, though he used it to humorous effect. Unfortunately, I can't find any complete online versions of his original speech (the youtube version above cuts off a few seconds from the end) but in the 2002 NSA adaptation - which is almost identical to the original - he does quietly say "Thank you" at the end.

Above all, whether we finish with a "thank you" or not, please do not have the attitude implied by the statement above "It’s the audience who should thank you for the information you’ve shared." This kind of attitude is poison and, I am convinced, will not lead to success either in or out of Toastmasters. If I don't audibly say "thank you" at the end of a contest speech, I sure hope the audience can see it on my face and in my eyes. And for them to see it on my face, it has to be in my heart first, "for out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks."

Thank you very much for reading and, until next time, speak well.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Is it possible to "over-rehearse"?

How many times have we heard it? "You don't want to over-rehearse. You won't sound natural." The more I learn about public speaking, the more I believe this is nothing more than a meme, something people say when they either don't know what to say or are looking for excuses not to rehearse. As a relatively new speaker, I've had to choose between two opinions. You'll hear these two opinions if you listen, so let's try to decide, which one should I listen to?

  • Somebody who's given a handful of public speeches, maybe even gotten their CC in Toastmasters, saying "You don't want to over-rehearse."
  • Actors, who rehearse the same script for months and yet sound authentic when they perform it, or musicians who spend hundreds of hours woodshedding a tune and yet sound fresh when it's performed, saying there is no such thing as over-rehearsing.

Personally, I think I side with the actors and musicians. So I was a bit surprised when I came upon this article by Nick Morgan. Nick is an expert on public speaking, specializing in how we come across to audiences in ways such as body language. (You can listen to an interview with Nick here on the excellent "What the Speak" podcast.) I was researching the question of whether you can over-rehearse and this article of Nick's came up. I saw the title and thought: how could rehearsing a presentation ever be a bad idea?

The article is interesting because he points out 3 kinds of rehearsal that are really not rehearsal at all:

  • Waiting until the last minute to rehearse. What this really means is the person procrastinated until the last minute and is hoping to cram all their rehearsal into one marathon session the day of the presentation. I can tell you, that doesn't work. You need to build rehearsal into the days or weeks prior to the presentation.
  • Rehearsing the wrong speech. This is pretty much the same as the first one. Michael Port, former professional actor and now speaker and speech coach, says the majority of the editing happens during the rehearsal process. I wholeheartedly agree with this. My speech at the beginning of the rehearsal process gets changed as soon as it starts coming out of my mouth. (More on this in another posting.)
  • Rehearing it only in your mind. This is not rehearsal at all. In fact, it's really a euphemism for "winging it." (I'll be talking about this more in another posting as well.)
In reality, he's saying the same thing: you cannot over-rehearse. As Nick concludes, "How much should you rehearse?  A lot.  Stage actors often get up to 6 weeks, 5 or 6 days per week, 8 – 10 hours per day, to rehearse.  That’s how you end up looking natural, assured, and authoritative.  Not by winging it."

So, let's follow the actors and musicians and, until next time, rehearse well.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Some more thoughts on writing a great introduction

I previously published another entry on writing introductions, but I realized I wanted to say a little more on the subject. So here it is. My goal was to help us write an introduction that's better than the rather lame and Toastmaster-y "Name - Speech Title - Speech Title - Name" introduction we often settle for in Toastmasters meetings.

Here's a way to think about your introduction. Everybody says your speech should start with something attention-grabbing. If you don't grab them in the first 30 seconds (says speech coach extraordinaire Patricia Fripp), you probably never will. So how attention-grabbing is it to start out by giving your name and giving a brief and probably tedious summary of what you're about to talk about? It's not! But, you say, how can I get that information in? After all, aren't I supposed to "tell 'em what I'm gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what I told 'em?"

Yes, but this doesn't mean you have to be the one tellin' 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. The answer is that you can have this information given in the speech introduction, before the speech even begins. Let the person introducing you - the Toastmaster of the Day at your meetings - give all that boring up-front information. That lets you hit your audience with something that will really grab their attention and keep them interested beyond the first 30 seconds of your speech. You can start them off with a memorable story or image, confident that the person introducing you has already given your audience the general idea of what you are going to speak about and who you are.

You might let your introducer - the poor Toastmaster of the Day in our meetings - try to write something for you, but let's help him or her do a great job. I think this is a better idea, as most introducers don't know how to write good introductions, either. The formula I like to use for writing introductions is the rule of the three C’s: Context, Content, Credibility. That is:

  • Context: something about the general subject area of the speech. This is where you set up the problem you're trying to solve with your speech. In other words: Why should the audience be interested in a speech about this subject?
  • Content: something about the speech itself. This is where you "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em." This gives them, in a sentence or two, what the main idea of your speech is. All speeches, whether two minutes or two hours, should be able to be summarized at a high level in a couple of sentences. In other words: After this speech, what good things will the audience walk out with?
  • Credibility: something about the speaker. Here's your chance to give some indication of who you are and why you are qualified to give a speech like this. It also gives you a chance to get out of the way the most boring part of most people's speeches, and lets your praises come from somebody's mouth besides your own. In other words: Who are you and why should we listen to you?

The overall introduction should 4-5 sentences long. The last two words are always the same: the speaker’s name. To see how this works, here's a fictitious (if slightly meta) example that would make a good intro for a speech about how to write speech introductions:
(Context) Many Toastmasters don’t know a good formula for writing introductions. It seems like an impossible task. (Content) Our speaker tonight has a three-step system for writing a speech introduction that has been battle-tested. (Credibility) He has written speech introductions for many international heads of state and is eager to share his secrets with us. Please welcome: Chauncey McTavish.
Here's a real example from a speech I recently gave. In this case, I sort of mixed the Content and Credibility a bit because I thought it flowed better that way, but you can see the overall pattern:
They say wisdom is found bound up in stories. Perhaps this is why storytelling has been called one of the most important business skills to learn for the next five years. Our next speaker has just completed his CC award and is starting the advanced storytelling manual. Today he has a story for us, collected from India by storyteller David Novak, called "The Three Dolls." Please welcome Gary Bisaga.
Just to get you started right, here's the introduction to another speech I recently gave:
It is said that “Leadership is Communication”, but really it goes both ways. Our next speaker is going to tell us about “the forgotten manual” that every Toastmaster has, and why we shouldn't forget it. He is VP of Education here at Loudoun Toastmasters. Please welcome: Gary Bisaga.
Here's to writing better introductions! Until next time, speak well.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

How's your body language?

Like introductions, body language is something that can get short shrift. But, if you think about it, it really should not be that way. We spend a ton of time writing and rehearsing our speech. So why are we happy doing things with our body that distracts from our message?

Business Insider a quick set of "worst practices" to avoid in body language when speaking. Most of them are fairly basic. Honestly, I'm surprised that people would do some of them (crossing your arms and/or legs? Seriously?). But they probably would not be listed here unless at least some people did. Others, sadly, I do see all the time, such as turning your back on the audience. The latter usually comes from an over-dependency on your PowerPoint slides. Happily, there's a "double cure" - rehearse your speech better, put less text on your slides (or drop them altogether), and you'll probably cure the problem of turning your back on the audience.

Anyway, here's the link. The presentation has some nice infographics to boot. Til next time, speak well.