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Where written communications are important for lots of routine work-related tasks–for everything from e-mail, to reports, to product and personnel evaluations, research, analysis, and lots more–spoken communications are pretty important, too. For this segment of our multi-part soft skills investigation, however, I’m thinking more about speaking in front of a group of people, rather than one-on-one communications at work with bosses, executives, peers and colleagues, and possibly subordinates or direct reports as well.
Although this kind of soft skilll applies primarily to those who seek to lead or inform others, which means it applies not just to technical managers, but also to lead and senior technical staff, trainers and help or tech support professionals, and others who interact with an audience from time to time. I’m concerned that some readers may be inclined to dismiss speaking and presentation as “for managers only” but that simply isn’t so. In my own active career in corporate America from 1982 to 1994, with additional stints in 1997-1998 and 2006, I found myself giving presentations at least once a week during that entire time (on average) where I was far more likely to be presenting as a technical lead than when I was in an out-and-out management role. It’s my firm belief that any IT professional will benefit from sharpening his or her presentation skills, and will probably find a chance to exercise those skills in front of a professional audience sooner than they might think (or perhaps even wish).
As with writing, practice is one important way to improve your abilities and techniques. Practice also helps to gain experience in speaking before an audience to get speakers used to, if not overcome, the inevitable jitters known as “stage fright.” Repeated experience does provide some desensitization that will be quite welcome to those who may be more prone to this kind of thing. Overtime the state of your nerves will subside from something that might suggest an immanent panic attack to a mere flight of butterflies in your stomach. And again, I speak from plentiful direct personal experience here.
Although you can and should practice making and giving presentations as opportunities present, I’d urge those who feel they have a lot to make up for, or a lot to learn, before they can become comfortable at public speaking, to consider joining the venerable organization known as Toastmasters International. For over 84 years this organization has sponsored regular meetings to let aspiring professionals from all walks of life practice speaking skills in front of a friendly audience, and has helped many successful people develop and hone speaking and presentation skills. In fact, I think this is a great venue in which to learn because the stakes are low, the audience is supportive, and part of what Toastmasters does for its members is to provide them with lots of constructive feedback to help them improve. And if you live in or near a metro area in the US, the odds are very high that there’s a Toastmasters International chapter within driving distance of where you live and work.
Sure, you can (and probably should) accept the occasional speaking or presentation assignment at work. But until you have the chance to try yourself out and get some experience in getting up in front of an audience and interacting with them as a speaker or presenter, Toastmasters may be a better situation in which to start down this road. Then, you can do the roughest polishing and give yourself some opportunities to learn from your own mistakes and those of the other fledgling presenters who will be part of your cohort at Toastmasters, instead of jumping feetfirst into the corporate boardroom or classroom.
Over time, as you get more comfortable, you’ll be more naturally inclined to go for speaking or presenting opportunities at work. If you show some aptitude for this kind of thing, chances are pretty good that the number of opportunities coming your way will increase. It’s also likely that doors to jobs where speaking and presenting is a big part of the position (training, product demos, pre-sales technical support, trade show duty, and so forth) may open to you as well.
Please, give this a try. It can’t hurt, and it will certainly give you some interesting things to do and learn along the way to developing basic speaking and presentation skills. And who knows: it may bring your opportunities that might never otherwise have come your way.