11 Strategies I Use to Improve Public Speaking

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Did you know that, according to the Chapman University 2016 Survey of American Fears, public speaking was ranked as a fear by more respondents than three kinds of natural disasters, gang violence, financial fraud, kidnapping, and needles? I’ve enjoyed opportunities to be a panelist or speaker in the past, so much so that I’ve made it a priority (not really a goal, but something to execute on every day – even I’m not sure how I would measure progress on this one!) to improve speaking in all aspects of my life, whether in front of a large, crowded room or in one-on-one conversations. Given that Warren Buffett believes, according to Inc., that public speaking is the “single greatest skill to boost your career,” why not take a chance on working toward overall career success?

Here are my eleven strategies I am working on to become a better speaker – with friends and family or a large audience as a public speaker!

  1. Practicing. This is my simple approach to everything I want to get better at. I simply need to do more of it. No one is perfect. In this vein, I take every opportunity, whether formal or informal, to practice speaking, especially in front of lots of people. Two ways I do this include:
    1. Face to face conversations. I work daily in an office that can have anywhere from 30 to 50 people present, depending on the day. Passing colleagues in hallways, greeting them hello in the morning, or chatting over lunch are all opportunities to practice my speaking. I make sure to make direct eye contact, smile (or not smile) as appropriate, use hand gestures, and, of course, listen.
    2. Phone conversations. I’ve found from talking to millennial peers that some are terrified of the phone – the thought of having to leave a voicemail is fear inducing, and actually speaking to someone is horrifying. When face to face is not possible, phone might be the next best thing, absent video conferencing (of which I do very little). One way I help myself prepare is to have a list of topics I want to talk about, so I feel more confident. While the phone is ringing, I practice my introduction and how I want to segway into the topics.
  2. Thinking ahead. Following onto the practicing, I make an effort to think ahead about and potential opportunity I have to speak somewhat publicly. On panels, I ask to see the questions that are anticipated or what discussion items might be. For a more formal speech, I spend a few hours preparing what I want to say and how I am going to say it. When I go to networking events, I always try to have a few “bullpen questions” for when a conversation gets quiet. To use in more extreme cases, I occasionally practice a graceful exit.
  3. Working on reduction of “like”, “um”, “just”, and “so”. As a millennial woman, these words and inclusion in the manner of speaking can be killer to a reputation I desire, one that has me known for professionalism and authority/knowledge. I don’t beat myself up for letting them slip out, but remind myself that there are better terms (or silence in the case of “um”). This takes conscious effort because of how pervasive it is, but I always feel a stronger reception when I am successful in the omission of these fillers.
  4. Improving my storytelling and reducing reliance on facts only. Statistics might be fascinating in short doses and in the proper context, but stats don’t make for compelling conversations alone. The best conversations or presentations weave experience of the speaker or others to share more insight about the facts and figures or the intent of the lesson. Storytelling relies on having experiences in life that can be re-told that add value to another person. Simply, the value could be for entertainment. Other times, it may be for education – or even both! In order to have experiences, I have to get off my couch and out into the world interacting with others. A variety of people in your life that you can regularly interact with certainly do make for great stories!
  5. Being my most authentic self. Ah, authenticity. That dirty “A word” we all grapple with when we yearn to be ourselves, but struggling to fit into the world around us as we “grow up”. I once received criticism in college that I was “too cheery” when speaking in front of a group.  It was disappointing to hear, because it was who I was. I tried altering my style and asking for feedback, only to find that most people preferred my natural, smiling, enthusiastic style. It was refreshing from other speakers and not forced. It was a lesson at 20 that feedback is important only if there can be improvements made to approach. Being who you are is important and should never change.
  6. Work on confidence. The famous adage of “fake it ‘til you make it” is good advice in most cases. Speaking publicly (as long as what you say is true!) is one of those instances where faking confidence can help you get through the tough spots. Some ways I build my confidence when speaking are to straighten my posture, watch tone and volume, make eye contact, and focus on smiling as appropriate – and as is my authentic smile.
  7. Focus on adding good content to the conversation. Speaking for the sake of speaking isn’t always appreciated. My intent with this strategy is to increase the impact of what I say. Sometimes this means that I stay quiet on something if there isn’t a new viewpoint to add. As a woman, this can occasionally get me into a bind where I’m not speaking up as I should, so I am mindful of my company or audience in asking questions or adding something of value.
  8. Staying positive and finding solutions. Who wants to listen to a complainer? On most occasions, I try to move forward from a problem or perceived complaint. Whether I re-focus myself or re-direct a conversation, the focus should be on adding positively to the lives of others, and, selfishly, myself (see item #7). Working to address topics of discussion positively helps me to think on my feet to re-frame, and also work on addressing the needs of the person I am talking to. It’s an exercise not in being uncomfortable, but working through being uncomfortable.
  9. Have goals for outcome. Similar to the previous two items, there has to be a goal for what I am sharing. Will it help someone, in some way? What is the ultimate message I am trying to convey? Will it improve how I am perceived by others? Often, I make sure to ask questions so that there is an outcome.
  10. Prepare for conversation, not only to be heard. Conversation and dialogue don’t happen without at least two people or two parties. There needs to be a back and forth for discovery of new viewpoints and an open mind kept for gaining new knowledge. Questions are the key for conversation – that and knowing that most people do love to talk about what they are doing or thinking, even if it does take some prodding.
  11. Listening. The magic of being a better speaker may be listening! I love and appreciate the opportunity to sit on panels because there is so much to learn from the other speakers, no matter their level of experience. Even if their commentary is irrelevant to my situation, I learn more about them personally, and that goes a long way into building the relationships.

There they are! I’ve been focusing on these strategies for a few years now, and have seen continuing improvement. Even still, there is a long way to go. I also make sure to ask for feedback when appropriate and am trying out a Toastmasters meeting later on this week.

Let me know where you stand on public speaking – are you a champion of the microphone and stage, or nervous to get out from behind backstage? Are there other ways you are working on improving your speaking generally or public speaking overall?

Mid-Year Book Round Up: Best of What I’ve Read

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I’ve been using GoodReads the past two years to incentivize myself to read more books. Reading is pleasurable – but I wasn’t doing enough to keep myself better educated and entertained in those spare moments of the day. Reading has been a source of enjoyment for as long as I can remember, whether for fun or even for assignments. Certainly, books of my own choosing win over books for English class! In case there are some of you out there who are looking for recommendations, I thought I would share my first half of 2017 “best of” books that I’ve read so far!

Current Reads

Here is a crazy number: I have SEVEN books on my “currently reading” status. SEVEN! No, not to keep to some lucky number, but for well-intentioned reasons. Sometimes I find a book I need to spend more time with, so I have to be thoughtful and intentional about getting as much out of it as possible, as opposed to consuming it as fast as I can. Joanna Barsh’s Centered Leadership: Leading with Purpose, Clarity, and Impact is one of those. There is so much action-oriented information to pull out for self-development, it isn’t easy to get everything out of it I can on a crowded train. Another one is Chris J. Anderson’s TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking.” Improving at public speaking, and maybe even adding professional speaking to my current resume, is a goal of mine, so there is a lot to gain from this book, too!

If I am taking the time and expense to read these books, I want to gain from them, not just swipe through pages on my Kindle. The reason I find myself with several thought-inducing books is because I am looking for something to re-start in my “in-between currently reading” space. Unfortunately, I also find other books that fall into this category!

Other times I find books that are good in small doses, for whatever reason. These books may not pique my interest at the time but may have been recommended or been published to some worthy acclaim that encouraged me to pick up a copy of the book. Maybe you find it just as frustrating to spend $10, or $15, or $20 or more, hoping to find a few hours of pleasure or opportunity to learn, and are completely unsatisfied along the way.

As one who is becoming increasingly aware of the value of my time, I’ve started to stop reading books that feel like a chore.  I normally hate quitting on my goals, but if a book is not adding value or enjoyment, it is not a goal worth having to only finish it. I usually give 40% of the book to decide to keep going or not (and this sometimes falls into the category above of needing to set aside for a bit – but for a different purpose!). Usually by that time I’m past a slow intro or into some good content and it is worth reading.

This year, only two books (both rated above 4 stars on Amazon or GoodReads) have fallen into this category – one star in my estimation. They shall remain nameless to not bias reading opportunities negatively. The one I am struggling with – despite recommendations and high rating all over the internet – is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. I’m not going to give up on this one yet, and try to get to at least halfway.

The Best I’ve Read in 2017

I’m defining the “best” of the first half of 2017 by those books I have given 5 stars to.  I have to be compelled strongly to give a five star rating, and truly feel a passion for what I have read.  My list of the best I’ve read in 2017 are, in the order in which I read them:

  1. Breaking into the Boys’ Club by Molly D. Shepard. Having been in male-dominated fields my whole career, I wish I had read this sooner! It is one I will probably re-read at some point to refresh the principles and remind myself of what is worth fighting for, and how. It was a mind-opening book that I highly encourage other women in similar positions to take a few hours to read. Ms. Shepard’s writing is sharp and clear with great storytelling!
  2. The Guest Cottage by Nancy Thayer. Who doesn’t love a book set on Nantucket! This was well written, I could feel the breeze and smell the ocean! The story line was sweet enough, and not over-saccharine. I felt relaxed reading this book at the same time on the edge of my seat egging the characters on in my mind. I look forward to reading more by Ms. Thayer!
  3. Originals by Adam Grant. This book was highly recommended by a good friend, which moved up this book on the reading list. Finding it on discount was an added bonus. For someone who is considers herself a non-traditional creative, or an original of sorts, this book hit home and while enjoyably informational, was also comforting that I’m not alone in this world, and that
  4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Couldn’t. Put. This. Down. Every free moment I had to read, I had Fangirl opened up. I was skeptical at the content, but I’ve loved everything Ms. Rowell has written that I’ve previously read, so I picked it up. It reminded me of the difficulties of finding who you are when settling into college, but also that joy of self-love and self-discovery when you find it. The narrative is fantastic and dialogue never forced.
  5. Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennette. Twelve year-old me would have been all over this book. It left me inspired to do more to support my own journey and other women in my life specifically and generally.  The tips and tools were helpful and thoughtful – not necessarily common sense, and I mean that in a good way. The illustrations added to the humor on an important subject. Had I bought this in hard copy I would have been giving it to every friend I could.

Notable 4-star books include:

  1. Earning It by Joann S. Lublin
  2. The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women by Glynnis MacNicol
  3. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte (this was close to a 5 star for me – I think had I not been reading it on my honeymoon, it might have inched up!)
  4. Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth by James Altucher

For someone who doesn’t claim to read a lot of fiction, I was surprisingly reminded that I do love the escapism of a well-written story of fiction! I tend to gravitate more towards self-improvement books that will help me grow as a person and as a professional, but once in awhile you need to live in someone else’s world to feel normal, or accomplished, or that all really is well. I did only read three fiction books this year, but two are certainly worth noting. I’ll be picking up more from those authors! Rainbow Rowell in particular has been a star for me. I’ve loved everything I’ve read from her. This goes along with other authors like Jennifer Weiner and Curtis Sittenfeld, at least in my eyes!.

How I’ve Been Achieving My Reading Goals

As of today, July, 20, 2017, I have read 22 of my 35 book goal for the year. This goal seemed audacious back when I set it, and given my success so far, combined with knowing people far busier than I read over one hundred, or even multiple hundreds, of books each year, my goal for next year will be to read an average of one book each week, or 52 books in 2018.

I see four primary reasons for why I am on track (and even slightly ahead of!) my goal for books to read this year:

  1. Kindle. Ease. Affordability ($1.99 sales versus $30 hardcovers!). Portability.
  2. Take opportunity to read whenever I can. Kindle helps with this – easier to carry, multiple books at once, ability to highlight and go back to those lessons.
  3. The tracking on GoodReads helps me stay motivated. I am a goal-oriented person. Reading to read often falls off the to-do or daily practice list, but knowing I am striving for a certain number of books read is a huge motivator!
  4. Some of the books have been short! Is this cheating? I don’t think so. The reads that are 4-5+ hours make up for the short reads in the average – but it certainly helps the tally up! Sometimes you need a small win when you can – finishing a book, no matter the size, is always a rewarding accomplishment.

What are you reading work recommending? Do you have a first half of the year book list to share? Post your list or a link to it in the comments and hopefully we all enjoy more of our days spent reading!

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Why Earning My MBA was Valuable: 7 Reasons

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Life sometimes surprises us in ways we don’t always expect. When I began my MBA education in 2012, I thought I was doing it to differentiate myself from other civil engineers so that I could show business proficiency and understanding on top of technical engineering and project management skills. The goal was to become a leader of an engineering company – not one in particular, and the position varied by the size.  Today, I am still geared toward goals of organizational leadership, and the MBA changed my career for the better, while helping me find that the real estate industry was where I want to be.

I’ve been asked often about the value of an MBA, particularly by engineering students and alums of engineering programs. I always explain how it has to be a personal choice, but always explain what made my MBA experience valuable to my career to help provide the petitioner some context.

  1. I waited a few years after graduating. Had I gone to grad school of any kind straight from college, I would have gone for a technical engineering degree, despite my interest for the business world. I needed a few years to remove myself from homework and lectures and to just get experience and determine a direction. Had I entered a graduate engineering program right away, I may have never finished, or finished a degree unfulfilled and frustrated that I needed to make it work for me. Particularly beneficial for business school, I had at least four years of working in companies public and private, gigantic and small, to think about how real world businesses operated. This was valuable context to have as a background – without it, everything is just theory. Your work experience becomes case study for every case study you might undertake!
  2. I picked the format that was right for me. I was concerned about having the liquidity to pay the mortgage on my house if for some reason my renter didn’t or left, and I didn’t want to lose 2 years worth of engineering experience to go back to a similar role (that was before I realized what it was I truly wanted to do!) and simultaneously take on two years worth of tuition and living expenses debt, which would have been the case with a full time program. I seem to often impress people, and as a result get questions of why I didn’t go to Harvard Business School or MIT’s Sloan School of Management. All in one moment I am filled with regret and doubt that I could have gone to play at even bigger institutions, but I remind myself there was a lot more than prestige that went into my decision making. The part time, online program was the best thing for me at the time.
  3. I could afford to pay for it. My dad is a Boston College alum and last fall was my 31st season of BC football at 30 years old. When I had researched the program at the Carroll School of Management, I was enthused at the possibility of becoming a BC grad that I even put down a down payment after gaining admission. However, when I did the math out (which I should have done before the down payment), the cost of the program did not fit within what my employer was willing to pay and what I could afford.  The Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts was a far more affordable program, and even highly ranked – currently #1 in the US for on online, part time program according to Financial Times and now in the top 12 by the US News & World Report. I couldn’t imagine having student loan payments for part time grad school that were almost as much as my Boston apartment rent – for the whole 2 bedroom apartment.
  4. Made me a more marketable candidate. “MBA preferred” was what I believe was listed on the job description for my current role when I was job searching. Jackpot! That was an absolute advantage that I had against potential others applying for the role. It also opened doors with some great people in my network who knew and liked me, and could now see that I had taken, at least educationally, the next step toward working my way up and being a bigger contributor.
  5. Gained knowledge I was hungry for. I am an insatiable learner. I enthusiastically consume non-fiction every day for a half hour, or more if I have the time.  Reading a book that condensed an MBA into a few hundred pages was going to leave me with more questions than answers. I was fortunate to have professors in my program who were appreciative of my questions and digging deeper, as well as some group mates who were thoughtful about what we were trying to achieve. My eyes were opened to fields like marketing where I previously had no interest, and then learned about the power of what that field can do.
  6. I applied my knowledge everyday to gain context. The key to learning, for me, is applying what I’ve learned.  Every month we had cost reports and project summaries and I could see the cause and effect of certain things not just on a project but the company as a whole. I didn’t have the think about “what ifs” because the business decisions were playing out in front of me, in both positive and negative ways. I could make educated assumptions on outcomes if the opposite decision had been made.
  7. My expectations were realistic. At the time, I wasn’t trying to change industries. I was focused on learning and adding to my set of skills to be a better professional. I wasn’t expecting a $250K job right away and I wasn’t expecting to hit the c-suite immediately. I knew it would help step me up, and that it was up to me to make an impact with my new knowledge and skills. It would be a waste to put the paper on the wall and not realize that effort every day is what keeps accelerating careers.

 

Would I recommend an MBA? While it opened doors and was an overall positive experience for me, in my advice to others I’ll always say it depends. I’ll be writing on the reasons why I don’t think the MBA was valuable in an upcoming post so you can see the other side of the coin.  It really comes down to personal interest, if it works for your life situation and your goals, and your willingness to dedicate significant time and effort to focus and make it worthwhile. I have friends and colleagues who went full time and would never sacrifice their experience. Whenever someone asks for my thoughts, I dig deeper about their motivations.

What was your experience with graduate school decision making? Was your degree (or not getting a degree) worthwhile, and what if anything would you have changed?