Say it, Sister: Five Public Speaking Tips from Toastmasters International’s Pat Johnson

by Shonali Burke on October 1, 2010


Pinch me

If someone had said I’d be president of Toastmasters International one day, I would have had difficulty believing that was possible. I was terrified to speak in public and started my career with very little confidence.

What I needed was practice in a safe environment, which I found through this organization.

In Toastmasters, I not only became a better speaker and leader, I also gained self confidence and had an opportunity to develop my strengths.

If you want to become a more confident and dynamic speaker, here are some proven tips:

Know your audience

Who is your audience? Why are they there? What do they want to learn?

Researching your audience and knowing what they are expecting is a valuable first step in preparing for your presentation.

What do you want the audience to do as a result of listening to you? Are you there to motivate them to action, to inspire them or to educate them?

Focus your speech around that information and leave them wanting more.

Know your material

If you have the flexibility to pick the topic you are speaking on, pick a topic you feel passionate about and are knowledgeable about.

We often take for granted our personal experiences and skills while they may be very interesting or of value to the members of an audience. They can serve as valuable stories to illustrate the points you are making.

As a speaker, if you are asked to speak on a specific topic, gather a wide and deep knowledge of the requested topic so you will have credibility with the audience.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Before you arrive for your speech, make sure you practice it several times. And, when you do practice, rehearse out loud with all the tools or equipment you plan on using (i.e., visuals such as props and PowerPoint).

Practice using a timer too; so you’ll stay within the time limits.

By practicing several times, you’ll also reduce those unnecessary filler words such as and or um and help ensure that your body language – your facial expressions, gestures, vocal variety – are congruent with your message.


Call it fear, call it excitement. It’s all adrenaline, and honestly, you may never quite lose that feeling.

You can change your perception of it, however, by pausing when you are transitioning from one idea to the next during your speech.

While we might never get rid of the butterflies, at least in Toastmasters we say we can get them to fly in formation.

Simply renaming that adrenaline rush to excitement helps us control and use it. I also find that I am able to relax more quickly when I remind myself that I am there for the audience.

It is much more about them than it is about me.

Realize that they want you to succeed

Know that your nervousness or even mistakes are not as noticeable to the audience as you may think.

I still get nervous. When I do, I remind myself that the members of the audience want me to have a great presentation.

They want to relax and enjoy the learning or the information that is being shared.

They will feel uncomfortable if the speaker appears uncomfortable. They are on your side.

There is a great likelihood that somebody in the audience has had the same or similar experience and is cheering for a great presentation. Knowing you’re not alone will help put you at ease.

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Image: Lóránt Dankaházi via Flickr, Creative Commons

Toastmasters International President Pat Johnson is a seasoned executive who has been a leader in corporate, government, not-for-profit and entrepreneurial industries. She is only the fifth woman ever to serve as the organization’s president. Pat says, “In Toastmasters, no one faces their challenges alone; there is always a fellow member to help you overcome whatever communication and leadership challenges you may face in your business.” You can find Toastmasters on Twitter.

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