On Tuesday I joined the Oxford Speakers Club. Although I’m very much at home with words when they’re safely written down on paper, when I speak in front of an audience, my sentences tend to run away with themselves. I feel as if I’m flying without a parachute.
I like the control that writing gives, with the chance to draft and redraft, but it is exhilarating to talk in front of a group and build a rapport with your audience. It is terrifying as well!
Of course, spontaneity when speaking in public develops with practice. Some people make it seem effortless; an innate art that comes from charisma and confidence. Yet I don’t think anyone is born a public speaker.
The best speakers in the group know their material really well and have learned the tricks of keeping going. They have “signposts” in their speeches, like repetition, questions, gestures, or key words, which give them a structure to work with, and highlight the important points for the audience.
In the club, we all have the chance to improve our spontaneous speaking with the “table topics” at the beginning of each meeting. People are chosen at random to speak on a topic for two minutes with no preparation. The topics can be as varied and humorous as describing ladies tights, talking about things beginning with the letter “B”, or advocating why a certain part of the body is better than others!
It’s a scary kind of fun, but we are all in the same position and everyone is friendly and supportive.
Three things that I have learned from watching table topics:
Don’t fret: The most successful spontaneous speakers are the ones that don’t think! This doesn’t mean they don’t think about what they are saying, but they are focused on the moment itself and what they will say next. Crucially, they don’t think about their nerves or the awe of being in front of an audience. They avoid that double-awareness, “Oh no I have no idea what to say, and just look at all those people out there,” which could hamper the fluency of their speech. I guess this is similar to the advice given to novice climbers: “Don’t look down!”
Formal is friendly: Having a structure is a comforting framework, especially in a spontaneous speech when you don’t know what you are going to say, but you do know that you want a definite introduction, middle, and conclusion; it is something to hold on to. The comforting structure also comes from the way the meetings are conducted. The Oxford Speakers Club is very friendly, but the meetings have a set formal structure. The formality makes each session more friendly, because nothing is unexpected and there is plenty of time to clap each speaker and give positive support.
Feedback comes in threes: One table topic evaluator advised that a good way to give constructive feedback is: Commend, recommend, commend, meaning, first give positive encouragement, followed by a suggestion for improvement, then end with positive reassurance. This stayed with me, as I have a tendency to commend then recommend, but don’t end on a positive note which can “lift” the person who is receiving the advice. I am trying to apply this three-part model to all the feedback I give now.
I’ve only been to two meetings and I haven’t spoken at a table topic session yet. I know I’ll be nervous, but I can’t wait for the thrill of getting up there and going for it!