Saneia Norton weighs up some of the interesting options available to hone your public speaking skills, and offers some insightful advice about how to put yourself out there, one step at a time.
The most desired skill expressed by architects in my workshops is to be able to speak confidently in public, ideally without nerves or extensive preparation. But if you’re anything like me, a work presentation takes hours of preparation, including moments of self-doubt and sheer panic. What’s worse, the only way to build confidence is to seek speaking opportunities – and who wants to volunteer for a fear-inducing activity? It’s not like learning guitar or juggling. You can’t practise in private and emerge when ready to wow others with your prowess. So, how do we get there?
I wanted to explore what communication skills resources were available to determine which are relevant to our work as architects, landscape architects and urban designers. I participated in a Toastmasters meeting and a communication workshop at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) to find out.
Despite never having been to a Toastmasters meeting, I’d formed an impression of a club for people with either crippling shyness or blind ambition. It was formed in the early 1900s by the director of education at the Illinois YMCA (a chap named Smedley) to help build leadership and communication skills in a social setting.
My hairdresser Jonathan was Toastmasters’ newest recruit. He loved it all – the rules, the structure, the challenge. Knowing my interest in public speaking, he invited me to come and watch. His outgoing personality and gift for storytelling had already made him a minor celebrity, with requests to speak at other Toastmasters clubs across town. Jonathan’s club was sponsored by an IT company and hosted in their boardroom twice a month after work. The evening began with soft drinks, sandwiches and small talk.
There are formalised roles, each with a slightly intimidating title: Timekeeper, Speaker, Evaluator, Toastmaster, Grammarian, Tablemaster, Harkmaster, Sergeant at Arms. There’s even someone who counts the number of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ in each speech. You must stand when speaking. Every aspect of the meeting is evaluated: your speech, your welcome, your timekeeping report. Feedback follows a constructive pattern: begin with a positive comment, follow with a recommendation for improvement and end on a positive summation. An upbeat tone is supported. Each speaker receives feedback from three audience members, delivered in the third person to the group (“Saneia was…”) rather than to the speaker (“You were… ”).
Timing is of great importance. The Timekeeper controls three light bulbs attached to a wooden board – red, white and green to indicate, in a typical seven-minute speech, when you get to five, six and seven minutes. It’s used to practise for Toastmasters competitions and encourages you to get your point across early on. I was told to watch the winner of the International Toastmasters competition from 2015 on YouTube and was duly impressed by the tight, entertaining speech.
Toastmasters may suit you if you crave a clear, step-by-step framework to demystify public speaking. It breaks down the fear of getting up to speak in front of others because you’re continually doing it. You’re well supported as a beginner and able to learn from more experienced members. It costs about $130 a year, plus an initial joining fee of $65 and an attendance fee of $4 when in person. Many clubs are online due to COVID and the website has lots of free resources. Each club has its own atmosphere and you can visit as many as you want until you find the right fit. It may not suit free spirits or those who prefer to find their own way of doing things.
Corporate training run by acting schools
Workshops with acting schools are another way to build presentation skills. Plus, they’re fun, with an aura of drama-club cool – you’re learning the same tips that launched the careers of Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving!
I attended a free workshop run by NIDA that gave an overview of their corporate training (courses normally cost over $700). There were about 40 of us arranged in an oval around a large room. Our hosts were professional actors and experienced trainers, Jen and Grant. There were four other supporting actor/trainers who participated alongside us in the various exercises.
Jen began with a history of NIDA, speaking loudly, enunciating and projecting her voice. She stood with feet planted wide apart as if she could spring into action at any moment. Grant led the ice-breakers, asking us to stand and start moving around. When he clapped, he’d call out a number and we had to quickly assemble into groups of that size. This changed up the energy in the room and brought people into close range (this was pre-COVID). Then the task changed: at Grant’s command, our group of seven formed an object with our bodies. First a croissant (an actor in our group led the way here – we were miles better than the other groups); then a flower (I saw a girl dive into the centre of her group to be the stem, body low, arms high); and, finally, the ultimate challenge, a person milking a cow. I immediately dropped to all fours as the stool, someone pretended to sit on me, two people were the cow and another milked. Lots of laughter. The commentary from the actors was entertaining in itself: “This group gets a point for being a hot mess.” “This group, no points, you just copied the next group.” “This group scares me.”
I loved the section on physicality. Grant talked about five levels of physical energy with Jen demonstrating. We all practised on the spot then moved around the room greeting each other in the different modes.
- Low Energy: My spine is slumped, arms dangle by my sides. My neck can’t support the weight of my head. I can barely muster the effort to acknowledge other people with a grunt.
- Casual Energy: My weight rests on one leg, my head tilts. I’m relaxed, like at a barbecue with mates, “How’s it goin?”
- Neutral Energy: I stand straight with my feet hip’s width apart, my shoulders back and down. The top of my head is being lifted with a string, my chin is tucked in. Greeting people in this mode feels calm, confident, open. I make more eye contact. Feels like a good mode for meetings or negotiations.
- Active Energy: Grant described this mode as “feeling like my body has a question”. I’m filled with energy, interested in my surroundings and other people. I bounce slightly on my toes as I walk. Greetings are louder, actions larger. You can feel a buzz in the room of people connecting, smiling, sharing positive energy. Grant says his most common task is lifting people’s communication mode from neutral to active. Good for networking drinks and presentations.
- High Energy: I’m ecstatic, whooping and punching the air. Everyone’s having fun with this one. I greet people with high fives and compliments, “Great hair!”. Grant says this level comes much more naturally to American audiences. It can be useful when you need to grab a room’s attention.
A vocal session. We did exercises to relax the jaw: the scream (wipe both hands down the sides of the face from temple to chin, lengthening your open jaw); stick your tongue out and write your name in the air with the tip; grimace; pout; stretch your lips with your fingers; blow out through your mouth like a horse. Note: try these in front of a mirror, definitely not in public.
To demonstrate how little we normally open our mouths when speaking, a young, nervous volunteer was asked to introduce himself, “Good morning, my name is Jim Jameson and I work at ABC Consulting”. He then had to repeat the sentence with two fingers inserted vertically between his front teeth, speaking as well as he could around the sides. Then a third time with fingers removed but imagining the obstruction was still in place. The difference was astonishing. Simply opening his mouth more and enunciating clearly made Jim sound more adult, more confident and easier to take seriously.
Acting workshops may suit you if you’re a chronic overthinker and want something to help you get out of your head. It’s fascinating to learn the physical tools professional actors use to convey confidence. It can be slightly confronting at times, but fun if you’re prepared to participate and laugh at yourself. Most drama schools and acting colleges run some sort of corporate training program, so there’s a wide range out there.
Top ten tips for design professionals
I’m constantly weighing up the recommendations of best practice public speaking with the daily communication challenges of a design professional. The methods promoted by Toastmasters and acting schools are useful, especially to boost confidence or to hone a specific aspect of presenting, like vocal projection. But it’s a bit different for us – our work is a fascinating blend of conceptual and technical, mystical and practical. Our biggest challenge is communicating the essence, value and complexity of our work to a broad audience. After 20 years of practice and hundreds of hours observing meetings, conferences and webinars, I offer the following ten tips as a starting point, whether your goal is to speak up in a meeting or own the stage:
- Make an effort to bring your topic to life. Use data, story, imagery, metaphor – whatever you think your audience will relate to. Examples are more powerful than explanations.
- Bring some energy to the room. If you don’t sound interested in your topic, how can you expect the audience to be?
- Keep your audience at the forefront of your preparation – what do they need to know? How much detail is appropriate? What terminology will they understand?
- Know your topic. Prepare in whatever way suits you. It’s absolutely fine to speak from a script, dot points, notes or diagrams, as long as you acknowledge your audience from time to time. Remember your key points and have enough detail to back them up if questioned.
- Keep to time. Respect your audience and put the effort into crafting an interesting, well-structured piece of information, whether it’s five, twenty or forty-five minutes. Don’t say “I’ve got a lot to get through here, so I’ll have to rush”. Get sorted.
- Aim for connection, not perfection. We’re so attuned to the super-slickness of the Apple keynote and the measured pacing of a TED talk, that sometimes it’s a relief when someone knocks over a glass of water or fumbles for the right word.
- Accept nerves as a part of life. To me, they signal that I care about this presentation and that I’m challenging myself. Understand how nerves affect you and develop strategies that help.
- Talk, stand and gesture in a way that feels natural to you and shows respect for others. Get training for anything that really bothers you, but ultimately these habits form part of your authentic style.
- Accept that your presentation style and choices will not resonate with everyone. I’ve sat next to colleagues at conferences who have hated the exact same presentation that I’ve just enjoyed. You literally can’t win them all.
- Seek feedback on your presentation from trusted friends and colleagues. Try not to agonise over negative feedback. The hard-won wisdom you gain from a rocky experience is often more useful than the euphoria when you ace it. Keep your sense of humour handy.
And one final tip, keep speaking up! Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. We get more articulate and more confident with practice, so we have to start somewhere. Our profession needs diverse voices and views, and the sooner the better.
Note: names have been changed to protect privacy.
Saneia Norton is a landscape architect and design communication specialist. In 2016 she founded Saneia Norton Design Communication (SNDC), running workshops, lectures and the podcast ‘Dig Beneath Design’. She also works part-time at multidisciplinary design office TYRRELLSTUDIO.
Saneia was also a guest speaker at our recent Light at the end of the Tunnel session on Speaking Up with Rachael Bernstone. The full recording of this event is now available for viewing at your leisure.