Learning how to be persuasive in front of large crowds starts with an honest self-assessment. What is your motivation for wanting to become a better communicator? What strengths do you exhibit as an orator? What specific things would you like to improve?
The answers to these questions, however, are merely a starting point. Some of history’s greatest orators and statesmen- from Demosthenes to Winston Churchill- overcame their fear of public speaking and speech impediments through constant practice and cultivation. Some of history’s greatest speechwriters- Peggy Noonan, for instance- began to appreciate speech as an art form only after giving a handful of bad speeches.
The journey of a great speaker, then, need not begin with Kennedy-esqe exhortations or flawless argumentation; it can also begin with a paralyzing fear, a bad speech, or discomfort in formal settings. The key is to be bold and put yourself in those settings.
Here are some ways in which you can in various capacities and settings–as a high school student, as an undergraduate or graduate student, and as a citizen:
- Join a forensics team. Whether you do this in high school or college, a systematic study and training in argumentation and public speaking is key to developing you as a speaker. Many schools have some form of a forensics team or a similar program. See if you can locate a speech, debate, or mock trial program at your school. Even if you can’t find one, don’t rule out starting one on your own.
- Take on a leadership post in an organization. If you find that you don’t want to dedicate most of your time to the study and practice of rhetoric via an organization on campus or at school, take a leadership post in an organization that you are already interested in. This way, you can treat your weekly meetings as another opportunity to practice and learn an alternative method of speech delivery.
- Seek out jobs that require strong communication skills. Indirectly, most jobs offered on campus require some level of communication and interpersonal skills. Challenge yourself and seek out jobs where your ability for improvisation will be constantly challenged, and where you will be pushed out of your comfort zone. Becoming a student ambassador (or tour guide) for your university is just one way for college students to cultivate these skills.
- Teach. One great way to improve your communication skills as you progress is to teach debate, public speaking or mock trial- especially if you are heavily involved and trained in what you teach. For example, some universities have a chapter of the Urban Debate League, an organization devoted to bringing instruction in debate to inner-city schools that do not have a formal debate program. Most of my former teammates in Mock Trial did some sort of community outreach and ran workshops for beginning high school students just getting started with Mock Trial. The benefits of teaching are two-fold: not only are you becoming a positive mentor for your community, but you also have an opportunity to perfect your skills.
- Join Toastmasters. Toastmasters, an international organization, prides itself on bringing together speakers from diverse backgrounds with different skill sets with the common goal of giving each other a chance to practice speaking in formal settings and garner necessary feedback.
Any other suggestions?