In this introduction to, and first episode of The A-Ha! Method Podcast, hosts Gabe Zichermann and Dayna Gowan talk through their own different paths to public speaking and the challenges they faced along the way. We’ll also look at why public speaking can be so hard for people – even those who are exceptionally good at other kinds of communication.
As humans, we experience procrastination motivation in many aspects of our lives—exercising, losing weight, improving our overall health and well-being, studying for a test, completing a project, saving for retirement, etc. I call myself the “ultimate procrastinator” because I have lived most of my life waiting until the last minute to do everything.
In general, people also procrastinate improving their public speaking skills until they absolutely need to! Most people, myself included, need a catalyst or a swift kick in the butt to get motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Work meetings and presentations are big motivators in shining a light on our public speaking skills, or lack thereof.
Here are a few scenarios of how this public speaking catalyst process usually works:
Your manager asks you to prepare and give a big presentation at work. Panic sets in!
You were put on the spot at a big meeting and did not answer as strongly as you wanted.
You just gave a big presentation at work that completely bombed! (Exactly what happened to me 7 years ago.)
And now you are finally motivated to make some changes and work on improving your public speaking skills!
While I am all for people finding any and all motivation to improve their public speaking skills, I want to give you a different kind of motivation today:
Start improving your skills now, instead of when you have a big presentation or speech to do. If you start working on your skills now, then you will be in a much better position to give the speech or presentation when the next opportunity comes up, and trust me, opportunities will come up!
Here are some ideas on how to improve your public speaking skills a little bit at a time:
Take a public speaking course.
Don’t rush through it. Take your time going through the content and try to apply different skills in your speeches. I have taken 3-hour public speaking workshops before, and while they are very helpful and informative, they do not provide the most opportunities to practice your skills that you may need. Find the right course and the right pace that works for you.
Give one speech per month.
If you don’t have a professional/work topic, that’s okay. Tell a story about a special time in your life. Storytelling looks easy and is so lovely when done well, but it is difficult to do in an engaging and effective way.
The interval here is really up to you, but once a month can help to keep you on track and see improvement quickly. I know other people who do a speech once a quarter. That works as well, just remember the progress may be slower.
Listen to Ted Talks or start to notice other speakers in your workplace—what makes their speeches so great or not so great?
I have learned so much from just watching people speak and making notes on what worked and what didn’t work. That is such a comforting thought to me too that I don’t always have to be speaking to learn how to improve. I can learn by watching others.
It’s easy to watch good speakers and say, “Wow, that person is a naturally great speaker. I could never do that EVER.” Instead of thinking that way, list all the techniques they used that made their speech great, and think about how to incorporate some of those techniques into your next speech.
Find ways to enjoy public speaking!
This is where the intrinsic or internal motivation kicks in. Once you start to enjoy it, you will want to do it more often!
Listen to stories on The Moth, listen to podcasts, or watch your favorite influencers or vloggers on Youtube. All these speakers on these platforms are using their public speaking skills to get their message across (mostly for good, but I’ll let you be the judge of that).
Once you realize that public speaking can be about telling stories and being your authentic self in front of people, it takes the fear and dread out of the task and makes it more exciting and fun. Bring that excitement and fun into your mundane work presentations. It can be done, I promise!
Speakers Alliance offers several opportunities for people to practice and improve their public speaking skills. We have a course on Udemy, weekly community practice sessions that are free and open to everyone, and we have recently released a podcast talking about different public speaking issues and topics. If our style doesn’t work for you, that is absolutely fine. There are many tools and trainings out there to help you. The most important thing is to find the training and practice that works for you and your schedule.
My public speaking mantra is “Say Yes, Speak More.” If you live in Los Angeles long enough, you will start making mantras for yourself, but this personal mantra has motivated me to tackle big public speaking opportunities that I originally wanted to turn down because I was scared and afraid. Say yes to public speaking and say yes to the speaking opportunities that come up in your life. Say yes to improving your public speaking skills NOW rather than waiting until “later.” Because if you wait until “later,” it may never get done, and then you will be missing out on all the benefits of improved confidence, communication, and connection with your audience that you could be enjoying right now.
Practice, practice, practice! That is the best way to become a better public speaker.
Each week the Speakers Alliance runs a FREE Speech Practice Clinic for people looking to improve their public speaking skills. Gabe and Dayna will discuss issues of importance, answer questions about professional and personal public speaking skills/techniques, and listen to/critique as many short-form talks as possible. The sessions take place Wednesdays at 6pm Pacific Time, and all are welcome. You can attend as many Wednesday sessions as you would like.
Talks can be 5-6 minutes long. The panel will provide up to 3 minutes of feedback. Speeches must be on a professional topic. If you do not have a speech prepared, you can still attend and listen to others practice and ask questions during the Q&A period.
For 2021, I set a goal for myself to take a comedy sketch writing class. I have been taking improv classes for over a year now, but sketch writing would be a new challenge for me. Whenever a funny scenario comes up in real life, I always say, “That could be an SNL sketch!,” but I never knew where to even start with writing it. In January, I signed up for the online Sketch Writing 101 Class at Rise Comedy. The class was only 4 weeks long with one class each Sunday for 2.5 hours, so it felt like an achievable goal. The first class we were told there would be homework, and we would be expected to write sketches on our own time.
Each class we’d get a sketch assignment, pitch our ideas, and then pick one or two to write in full. At the next class, we would do a read through, give and get feedback and then punch-up (a comedy writer’s term meaning “to improve upon”) the jokes and concept. It was like our very own online writers’ room, and I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would.
During Sketch 101, I wrote a monologue based on my mom, a parody about anti-vaxxers in LA, and a premise-based sketch about a woman who pretends her stuffed animals are real pets on Zoom calls. My portfolio is ready if anyone is interested.
I enjoyed 101 so much that I signed up for Sketch Writing 201, which started on March 28, 2021 and just wrapped up on April 18, 2021. Sketch 201 involved more collaborative writing with a partner, which was fun to write with different classmates. For 201, I co-wrote with my partners a sketch about 43-year-old ladies who love Disney way too much (this sketch was totally based on my friends and me) and a sketch about 3rd graders on strike at school. Again, my sketch portfolio is ready! SNL, call me! 😃
I really enjoyed 201 as well, and I plan to continue on with 301 when it is offered. I have never taken any creative writing classes before this EVER, and wow, have I been missing out! I loved the creative outlet! I know it will get harder as we start to put together an actual sketch show and cast people for parts, but one step at a time!
Sketch Writing and Public Speaking
As I was going through my sketch classes this year, I couldn’t help but think about how the lessons of sketch comedy apply to public speaking as well. I didn’t take sketch writing to improve my public speaking skills, but I believe some of the key lessons can be helpful to anyone looking to improve their public speaking career, even for non-humorous speeches and presentations.
Here are five lessons learned from Sketch Writing Class that can be applied to public speaking:
Don’t judge yourself, just keep writing!
When you are starting out with a sketch or a topic, just get it all out on the page (aka word vomit or for a more pleasant term — free writing). Don’t let your brain filter you and tell you it’s stupid or not worth writing. Fight against your perfectionist tendencies. Just get it all out on the page, coherent or not, and you can edit later! If you keep it inside your head — like I have done for many sketch and speech ideas — then the world will never see it or hear it. The world needs to hear your message, and we want to hear your message after you have crafted it! The first step though is to get all those ideas down and then you will be able to better organize your ideas and message at that point.
Say “Yes, and…” to build on ideas.
Once you have your ideas on paper, whether written or typed, then start building on those ideas instead of shutting them down. Sketch writing uses the principles of “Yes, and…” from improv to create funny scenarios and situations. Another phrase that gets used a lot is “If this is true, then what else is true?” When I was working with my sketch writing partner, I noticed she used the “Yes, and…” principle very well. Whatever idea I had, usually a stupid pun or joke, she would say, “YES! And then we can do this!” Working with her was so easy and fun! I hope to be able to collaborate with her more in the future!
Point of view
Sketch writing and probably most creative writing classes (I assume) teach you to have a clear point of view. What are the characters’ points of view? What are you trying to say in your sketch? What message are you trying to convey here? All these are good questions to ask yourself as you are writing and planning your next presentation. If it is not clear to you what your message and point(s) of view are, then it won’t be clear to your audience.
Keep it simple!
Once you have your point of view in mind, then keep it simple! This goes for your sketch ideas and dialogue. Don’t hide your jokes. Don’t be cute and coy about it. Make your jokes known and make sure your audience knows they are there. The same thing applies to public speaking with your message. Don’t hide your message or make it difficult for the audience to understand your message. At the same time, keep your message and call to action simple. Instead of a 10 bullet point list of things to do after hearing your speech, keep it short—1-3 points maximum so your audience can remember them and actually use what you taught them.
This is the part of sketch I struggle with the most. Ugh! In sketch class, they had a timeline of the drafts, and by Draft 4, the sketch was usually ready to go to production. That means four rewrites, and I don’t mean just fixing grammatical errors. Draft 1 to Draft 2 could involve totally different characters and premises depending on the feedback you got. Drafts 3 and 4 really focused on joke punch-ups and making sure every line was reviewed and a joke was added if it fit.
I really struggle with rewrites and editing. Gabe Zichermann has a fantastic editing and iterative process, which he outlines in the A-Ha Method Course, but I can honestly say this is a part of my public speaking game that I need to improve ASAP. I have created a bad habit of “one speech and done” at my current Toastmasters club—meaning I give the speech, get feedback, and never really look at or think about the speech again. While that has helped me to get over my fear of public speaking, it will not help me much as a paid presenter. This is a top priority of mine right now as a speaker, and I am committed to working on this.
Your speech and presentation may need a lot of edits and time at first. However, it will be absolutely worth all the effort put in when you finally give that amazing presentation, and your audience understands and loves your message.
These lessons from sketch class have served me well, and I hope they will help you too!
Overall, sketch writing class has taught me to not take myself too seriously and to be silly just for the sake of being silly. Sometimes the best sketches (Chopping Broccoli and Spartan Cheerleaders for example) are the most memorable because they are just so silly and fun. I also love the timely political sketches and the sketches that call me out directly (Zillow SNL commercial and Murder Shows SNL song), but the simpler the sketch, the better!
There are so many great lessons to learn from creative writing that can be applied to public speaking. I hope you will take some of these lessons and apply them when preparing your next presentation. And to challenge yourself, I encourage you to try a creative writing class of any sort to generate more ideas for your future speeches. It doesn’t have to be comedy if that’s not your thing, but find a class that works for you and will help you improve your skills. Be creative, and your presentations and your audience will reap the benefits!
Big shout out and thank you to Nick Armstrong and the Rise Comedy Theater for an excellent and inspiring round of sketch writing classes! I am ready and excited for Sketch 301!
Over the past 7 years, I have been working to overcome my gripping and limiting fear of public speaking. After pushing myself out of my comfort zone and making public speaking improvement a priority, I have found that the benefits of liking and, dare I say, even loving public speaking instead of hating and fearing it are ABSOLUTELY LIFE CHANGING! Here is my story.
Face turning bright red like a tomato.
Mind going blank and having no idea what I am saying.
All I want to do is get the presentation over with and sit back down where no one can see me.
That is how I felt during every presentation and speech before I conquered my fear of public speaking.
I always knew I wasn’t a good speaker and presenter – throughout middle school, high school, college, grad school. It just wasn’t my thing. I always struggled with it anytime I had to get in front of a room, and therefore, I hated it and always got nervous anytime a presentation project was mentioned in one of my classes. I had so many theories as to why I wasn’t good at it. For example: I thought I just wasn’t born with this natural ability to speak in front of a crowd like others were. I also thought maybe I would suddenly find this magical confidence at age 35. Why 35? I don’t know, but in my mid-20’s it seemed like an age where I hoped I would stop caring what others thought and be comfortable in my skin. No matter what I did, this fear and anxiety followed me from school projects to my professional life, and I finally had enough.
Where this fear all started
D.A.R.E. Graduation in 5th grade
The D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program involved police officers going to schools and teaching students about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and violence. Their main message, at least in 1998, was to just say “NO!” to all these substances, especially marijuana – a gateway drug to all the other drugs out there. (I’ll save my commentary on that line of thinking for another time.)
After students completed the D.A.R.E. graduation curriculum, they would hold a Graduation Ceremony where students had to say “NO!” to Drugs in front of their parents and family members. I gave it everything I had when I auditioned for the emcee role for the Graduation Ceremony, and I got it! I was probably the only one who tried out for the role, but I was still so excited!
Then the day came for the event. Armed with my index cards in hand, I got up to the microphone in front of the audience, and I froze! I could feel all the eyes on me, the silence was killer, and my hands and legs started shaking uncontrollably. I got terrible, awful stage fright, and I was so upset! This is my first memory of feeling this debilitating stage fright and anxiousness.
I blame D.A.R.E. for all my public speaking woes — not really, but it feels good to have someone else to blame for this problem. Because of the D.A.R.E. program, I struggled for 15 years with addiction. I was addicted… to saying “NO!” to public speaking. That’s my terrible joke, and I am sticking to it.
Since that terrifying time up on stage in 5th grade, I STRUGGLED with public speaking. Middle school, high school, college, grad school – every time I had to give a presentation, I hated it. Even doing introductions on the first day of class had my heart feeling like it was going to pump out of my chest. “Hi, my name is Dayna LeBlanc, and I am taking this course…because it’s required.” Why was that so hard to say??
I dreaded Speech 101 in college, but I luckily made it through that class with an A because only a percentage of the grade was actually based on your speaking ability. My ability to write outlines, complete projects, and study for tests was just fine. My first speech in Speech 101 class was a 4-minute speech on something that has influenced you. I decided to talk about my experience as a senior in high school in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit — a topic I could for sure find four minutes worth of material to talk about. Four minutes seemed like an eternity to me, but when I got up to speak, I ignored my whole outline, went off script (aka rambled), and I ended up talking for 11.5 minutes. There were no timing lights to tell me I was way over time, only the slowly dropping faces of my classmates, who were shocked and overwhelmed at this long, run-on sentence of a story. I got a B+ on the assignment, most likely because the instructor either felt bad for the subject matter of my speech or me as the speaker or both.
My Last Straw Moment
I thought this was a problem that would just plague me in school — maybe I just got nervous in front of my peers, despite the many pep talks I would give myself. “I don’t care what they think about me. I am going to get up and give this presentation and not care at all what they think,” I would tell myself before my presentations. Maybe I didn’t really care what they thought of me, but when I got up in front of them, I sure worried if they could tell how nervous I was. I thought when I got out into the real world that I would be fine — completely poised and professional. But this theory was quickly proven wrong.
Three months into getting my dream job as an Employee Wellness Coordinator at a well-known insurance company in South Carolina, I had to give a wellness presentation to our HR department. The presentation was about Stress Management, and I worked for many days on prepping the slides and my talking points. The day of the presentation, I ran into my manager beforehand, and he told me the HR manager for the group I was presenting to was a Distinguished Toastmaster. I had no idea what that was, but I was 100x more intimidated after that. The pre-speech “I’m not nervous at all” pep talk went out the window, and I became overwhelmed with nerves.
During the presentation, I committed all the big public speaking blunders:
I didn’t introduce myself or my co-worker who came with me, and we were both new to the company,
I talked about how nervous I was — how fitting for a stress management presentation,
And I went way over time – about 15-20 minutes over.
In hindsight, no one died and probably no one who attended that presentation, except for me, remembers how bad it was, but that was the last straw.
After the presentation, I went back to my office, ran to the bathroom and cried. I was so upset that this fear and anxiety of public speaking had followed me from school to my professional life. I was so tired of not getting my message across when presenting and feeling terrible about my performance afterwards. I decided something had to change. I had to get over this crippling fear, for the sake of my career and my well-being.
How I Conquered My Fear
I thought about the Distinguished Toastmaster title — whatever that meant — and I decided to look up Toastmasters. Fortunately, my company had a corporate Toastmasters club that met every Thursday during lunchtime, so I decided to check it out. I visited as a guest for a month or so, and then in October 2014, I made it official and joined as a member. My department paid for my membership, which was nice and supportive. I gave my Icebreaker speech a few weeks after joining. I talked about 2 things that influenced me throughout my life — no, not Hurricane Katrina this time, that was my 2nd speech topic — I talked about my love for volleyball and running. I had nine umms and uhhhs, relied fully on my notes, used lots of unnecessary hand gestures, had a red blotchy face and neck afterwards, and I had to rush my conclusion to stay within timeframe, but I got through it. And no crying in the bathroom afterwards at least!
I gave at least one speech a month, and in June 2015, I had given 10 speeches to reach my Competent Communicator designation. By that 10th speech, I had ZERO filler words, index cards that I didn’t end up using, purposeful movements, and a polished, effective conclusion. I had really pushed myself to get up there and give these speeches, and I found that I enjoyed it, even though I still struggled with it. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was a whole lot better than when I started.
My Public Speaking Journey
Six and a half years later, I am still in Toastmasters, and I am enjoying getting to share my stories and practice my content. I also really enjoy hearing others share their stories. In this time, I have accomplished so many goals I NEVER thought I would reach. I got my Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) designation, meaning I gave over 50 speeches and served in leadership roles, and it took me about five years to do that.
I also competed in contests, which is something I never thought I would do. When I watched the World Championship of Public Speaking Finals as a new Toastmaster, I would think, “I could never do that!” Although I haven’t reached the Finals (yet), I have competed in smaller level contests and won! I won 2nd place in the District 58 Evaluation Contest in 2017, which meant I had to give a 2-3-minute evaluation of a speech. The fact that I am competing and putting myself through these contests is such a win in itself, I don’t really care what place I get, although it is nice to win every now and then.
I also served in leadership roles within my clubs, and I have now served as Club President and other roles for three different clubs. When I was Club President for the first time in 2017-2018, I could see my newfound leadership skills and confidence slowly start to transfer from my Toastmaster meetings to my professional work. I started speaking up in meetings more and advocating for myself and my needs as an employee and also the needs of the department. I started to be viewed as a leader within my department, even though I didn’t have the manager or supervisor title.
It truly is life changing to not be afraid of public speaking or being put on the spot. I don’t second-guess myself (as much) anymore, and I am no longer surprised by this confident person (me!) speaking up and leading meetings. I have embraced this confidence level I never thought I would have, and I have allowed it to take me to new heights — all before the age of 35 too! Another one of my why-I’m-so-bad-at-public-speaking theories now disproven. I have now tried things I never thought I would be able to do, such as lead conference calls and now video calls effectively, give speeches at weddings and funerals, take improv classes, take sketch writing classes, and much more!
I wish I could say the nerves are completely gone and exterminated, but they still show up every now and again. I get upset when the nerves creep into my speeches, but I am much more in control now of my speaking abilities.
I have lots of dreams and goals — I am going to start giving paid presentations as a side business, and I want to continue getting better at improv and sketch writing. It’s absolutely mind boggling how the girl who got so nervous at any mention of a speech or having to speak in front of a crowd now wants to do it as a career. And the fun comedy outlets would never have happened without my firm public speaking foundation and confidence to throw myself into a challenge and try something new. The sky is the limit here, and the only person who can hold me back from achieving my goals is me.
Does public speaking make you nervous?
I often don’t believe it when someone else says it, but it’s so true in this instance – “If I can conquer my fear of public speaking, you can too!” It takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and make public speaking improvement a priority, but when you do, you will find more than just growth. You will find life-changing confidence that you never thought you would have in your wildest dreams. This new confidence can take you to new heights in your job, your business, and your life if you let it. And this newfound confidence can come at any age too!
There are many ways to overcome your fears of public speaking, and the most important thing is to find the way that works best for you. Toastmasters helped me a ton, but there is a certain level of commitment that takes a lot of time to see results, so it doesn’t work for everyone. If you need quick help overcoming your fears and improving your public speaking skills, check out the online course “Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction: The A-Ha! Method” by award-winning instructor Gabe Zichermann.
We will soon start offering community sessions for course participants to practice their presentations and receive feedback – both helping to overcome those fears and make their presentations and pitches more effective. You can take the course at your leisure and put the included resources to use when you need them the most. Sign up for this helpful professional speaking course today!
Online meetings are part of the new normal. Even as businesses welcome back employees and desks are filling up again, the majority of businesses will continue to utilize online meeting platforms to connect teams remotely. Online meetings and presentations can be tough though, and many people find them much more difficult than in-person meetings.
Why? It comes down to interaction. When you are holding an online meeting presentation, many participants are multitasking and not giving you their full attention. It’s your job, as the presenter, to overcome that distraction by being as effective and engaging as possible. Here are five tips you can take to your next meeting to capture their attention and increase engagement.
5 Tips to Make Your Next Online Meeting More Engaging
1. Break up screen sharing with face-to-face engagement.
When you start a presentation or a meeting, the instinct is to start sharing your screen. As soon as you start sharing your screen, though, meeting participants will take that as an opportunity to multi-task. They’ll end up checking email, sending a quick text, or browsing through a report. If you want to get feedback or increase engagement, you need to turn screen sharing off occasionally.
Turn your camera back on and address your participants directly. They are more likely to stay engaged and respond when prompted if there is a human face on the screen. Otherwise, like you, they will be using screen sharing to hide.
2. Keep your sentences (and your slides) short.
No matter what you do during a virtual meeting, people will be tempted to multitask. Email, calendar reminders, and even distractions at home will pull their attention away from what you are saying. You need to overcome those distractions with your content.
That starts with keeping your sentences short and concise. Don’t launch into a monologue and expect people to follow along. Make sure every sentence you say has a purpose. Avoid rambling and end your sentences with a period instead of trailing off. This will help you keep your audience’s attention.
Practice the same technique with your slides. Only show the most important slides and keep the main point front and center on each one. If you end up using too many slides or showing them too much data, you’ll lose your audience.
3. Don’t be afraid of a little silence.
Silence will scare inexperienced presenters. They will end up trying to fill it or talk through it. However, professional presenters know that a little silence is a good thing. Learn to get comfortable with periods of silence in your presentations. Silence will encourage discussion and participation. It also gives your audience some time to think before they start speaking.
Your instinct to jump in and keep talking will be strong, so practice counting silently in your head while you wait. This helps you fill the time in your own mind, but it will also clue you in to how short those silences really are. Many presenters find that even three seconds of silence is enough to encourage discussion, but don’t be afraid to wait longer.
4. Be mindful of busy schedules.
You probably aren’t the first meeting on their list today. You probably aren’t the last, either. Make sure you are mindful of people’s time. We all know how too many meetings can end up eating away the day and cutting into actual productivity. That can make your participants frustrated from the beginning, as well as more likely to try to multitask while they listen to you. Keep it short and sweet when you can.
Along with that, make sure you know what you are doing in the meeting. That includes understanding how to put the technology to work. There is nothing worse than sitting through a meeting when the presenter doesn’t know how to use the platform. Practice if you need to so you know how to start videos, advance slides, and turn screen sharing on and off.
5. Make sure the takeaways are clear.
By the end of the meeting, make sure participants have clear goals or takeaways. If you need to make decisions, make them in the meeting or leave the attendees with action points about what will happen next. This makes the meeting feel like it was worth their time and gives them something to act on afterward.
A final slide at the end of your presentation with the main points written out is helpful and/or a follow-up email with action points, which will ensure everyone is on the same page, too.
Bonus Tip: Learn the art of interruption.
If you have a participant who is rambling or who has gone off-topic, learn how to politely interrupt them and get things back on track. For those who don’t like to interrupt, it may feel more difficult to do. However, if you don’t, you risk losing the attention of the rest of your participants while one person overruns your meeting. Plus, the meeting can end up being a waste of time when important topics aren’t discussed. A simple, “Okay, let’s redirect our attention…” will usually do the trick.
Still Struggling to Get Your Message Across in Virtual Meetings?
Are your Zoom, Teams, or other virtual meetings and presentations as effective and engaging as they could be? If you are looking for more tips and advice on how to increase audience engagement in your next virtual meeting, check out the online course “Public Speaking in a Time of Distraction: The A-Ha! Method.” Award-winning instructor Gabe Zichermann offers plenty of tips and tricks on public speaking, including:
Crafting engaging openings and conclusions
Using effective slides to capture attention
Understanding the best methods to get your message across
And so much more. Each tip will help you level up your professional communications so you can capture attention and get your point across in a meaningful way. You can take the course at your leisure and put the included resources to use when you need them the most. Sign up for this professional speaking course today!