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I, like, so suck at speaking to a crowd

by Andrew C. MacDonald on December 1, 2009

Source: Globe and Mail | Published: Tuesday, December 1, 2009 | Written by: Dave McGinn

More young professionals are being asked to make presentations – and to make sure they get it right, many of them are seeking out public-speaking training.

At his performance review last year, Andrew MacDonald, a 23-year-old financial analyst in Toronto, was told that one aspect of his job was in need of quick improvement. It wasn’t his ability to crunch numbers or forecast a company’s performance.

public-speaking-skills“You need to speak up louder, you need to be more confident when you’re presenting,” Mr. MacDonald recalls being told.

So this spring, he joined the Bay Street Breakfast Club, a group that meets every week in the hopes of becoming better public speakers.

As many organizations have become leaner, more young professionals in the early stages of their careers are being asked to step up in front of boardrooms or deliver presentations to clients. To make sure they get it right, many of them are seeking out public-speaking training, often at the request of their companies.

Such training, experts says, is especially needed by a generation that has grown up sending text messages peppered with LOLs and whose speech is filled with verbal tics such as “like” and “so,” which may be fine for Facebook or a chat room but hardly proper in a conference room.

They’re like, you know, so totally in need of help.

“If you’ve had so much experience communicating in short bursts and not even having the formality of a ‘Dear Susan’ at the beginning of your e-mail, it brings down the formality of communication and therefore [creates] the assumption that all communication is informal or can be spontaneous,” says Elizabeth Hunt, president of Hunt Communication in Toronto.

Jim Dewald, associate dean of the master of business administration program at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, meets with several companies each week to see what they are looking for in fresh-faced graduates. Effective speakers are in demand, he says.

“There’s three critical areas where employers really want to see vast improvement in students, and one of them is communications,” he says. “It’s not just about making presentations. It’s about effective communication, written communication, effective communication in terms of being able to listen and clearly understand what people are saying, and then a component of that is public speaking and being able to present something in front of a group.”

To be fair, people of earlier generations were not great public speakers as they set out on their careers. Few individuals in their early 20s are. But those people were usually given a few years to build their confidence before being put in front of a group, with more senior individuals responsible for making presentations. Now, however, many junior people are being thrown into the spotlight.

“There’s a real risk that they will still behave like young people,” says Margaret Hope, a public-speaking professional and president of Lions Gate Training in Burnaby, B.C. “They don’t have the confidence yet, so they behave like people who aren’t very confident. So you see [in] the body language that you wouldn’t have to hear a thing they’ve said to know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Even those in professions that aren’t typically thought of as requiring much time in front of a podium, such as chartered accountants, are increasingly being asked to become better speakers.

“Firms tell us that where they see students wanting when they come out of the CA program is in the general soft skills areas altogether, communication being a primary one of those,” says Moira Bryans, director of professional development at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of British Columbia.

In response, the institute has established three Toastmasters clubs in the province.

Many young professionals and students have seized on public speaking as a way to stand out in a competitive job market.

“I think this will really help me answering questions I get on the fly and being comfortable at communicating my ideas to others,” says Sunil Acharya, a 26-year-old MBA student at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business and co-president of the Ivey Public Speaking Club.

Dana Pu Chen, an MBA student at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, has buffed up her speaking skills through course work requiring presentations in advance of starting a job as an associate in commercial banking at Toronto-Dominion Bank in the new year.

“It’s a question of being able to influence, whether that be your peers, your clients, your boss or a board of directors,” she says. “So not only do you want to deliver the content in an effective manner, but you also want to engage your audience.”

As for Mr. MacDonald, he is no longer worried about his next performance review, at least when the issue of his speaking abilities comes up.

“When I first started I would be really nervous when I went up [to speak]. It was just scary being up there,” he says. “Now I’m already starting to get compliments on how well I’m presenting at work.”

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