How Developing Your Speaking Skills Will Help Your Career
One common piece of career advice is to improve your speaking skills. But unless your work involves regularly speaking to audiences, is it really worth the effort?
To find out, we spoke to four professionals who spend their free time doing something that terrifies most people – public speaking – and asked how this has helped in their careers.
Whiter Tang is a clinical pharmacist who has spent three years developing her skills by attending a public speaking club. Her efforts have had a positive impact.
“Not only have I had promotion opportunities, but I also now have the general confidence to give presentations and lead meetings,” she says.
“I am naturally a quiet person and may give that impression to others who don’t know me well. I still remember when I had to represent pharmacy in an important hospital accreditation meeting and was able to convey my message clearly and confidently, and managed to surprise some of the others in the room that I was able to speak so well in such a situation.”
In fact, everyone we spoke to mentioned increased confidence. Caterina Conte is an educator who works with children and adults. She spent two years taking improv classes, and was surprised by how significantly the skills she developed have helped her at work.
“Improv classes enabled me to push myself out of my comfort zone. I became more flexible, resilient and capable of managing unexpected situations. Most importantly, I learned how to maintain a positive attitude and give a constructive response, even when others are not talking or behaving how you might expect.”
Responding to your audience
Another benefit Caterina took from her improv experience was an ability to empathise with and respond to others.
“When you do improv, it’s paramount that you listen closely to what your fellow actors say during the scene. You should be able to anticipate what’s coming in order to make a valuable contribution to the story. In some way that also helps to boost your empathy. At work, these skills have become very helpful in understanding how my classes respond to certain contents and in anticipating my students’ needs.”
Erin Colgrave is an architect who dreaded public speaking. Hoping to reduce her nervousness, she joined a public speaking club. Like Caterina, she found practising has helped her to connect with her audience.
“I now can take the audience on a journey with my prepared speeches, appreciating their point of view much more.”
“Practicing speeches I’ve written has improved my ability to structure a speech for maximum interest. I now can take the audience on a journey with my prepared speeches, appreciating their point of view much more. It has also improved my memory and recall abilities; now my speech notes are either key points or no notes at all.”
Erin’s skills made all the difference when she and a colleague were called on with only a few hours’ notice to present one of their design projects to a high-level government-appointed architectural review panel.
“In the past I would have turned to water!” Erin says. Instead, she was “able to present well, with clarity, and to adjust the tone of the presentation part way through in response to the audience reaction. It was still stressful but much less than it could have been.”
Speaking off the cuff
After several years as a communications manager, Jacqui Dent changed careers, successfully landing a role as an associate editor for an online media company. The public speaking club she attends focuses on developing impromptu speaking skills. Jacqui has found this helpful in many situations, including job interviews.
“What I noticed right away was that I was more confident contributing at staff meetings and talking one-on-one with my manager and other staff,” says Jacqui. “The impromptu speaking also really helped me answer curly questions in job interviews, in two ways – I got practise coming up with quick answers to difficult questions, and I just generally felt more comfortable being put on the spot.”
She also discovered herself more confidently participating in group discussions in unfamiliar settings, such as conferences. “Three years ago, if a conference presenter asked a question to an audience, I would never have been the one to put up my hand. Now I do.”
For Jacqui, a surprising benefit of impromptu speaking practise was failing. There have been times when she’s had to give a short speech in response to a question she couldn’t think of an answer to. “I still struggled through the speech and what I learned is that the sky doesn’t fall in. After the first time I did badly at impromptu practise, I had a great sense of relief. I became a lot more relaxed about speaking in public.”
There are many ways to develop your speaking abilities. In addition to public speaking clubs like Toastmasters, there are a variety of courses and workshops available. You can also find many online resources and even apps that can help you improve, such as LikeSo. If you’re feeling especially brave, you might consider taking a stand-up comedy or improv class.
However you do it, the effort is sure to have a positive impact, no matter what type of job you have.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a writer and stand-up comedian. She’s written for McSweeney’s, Kill Your Darlings and Griffith Review. Her current project is How To Be Australian, a memoir. She runs the comedy website Full of Donkey and tweets at @AKalagianBlunt.
Lead image: NBCUniversal / Parks and Recreation.