Thursday, November 16, 2017

Public speaking: An important career and life skill

When I was a junior high school student 30 years ago, I, like most teenagers, dreaded public speaking. The butterflies would kick up in my stomach and I couldn’t wait for the ordeal to be over.

Fortunately, at least from my standpoint at the time, such activities were rare – we might have made one or two presentations a school year and you could always lean on your equally-uncomfortable fellow speakers as we almost always spoke as groups, never singularly.

Luckily, I had Scouting to dramatically change my world view of public speaking in the closing years of my school life. Being put into positions of leadership such as senior patrol leader and working at summer camp as a merit badge counselor made me develop public speaking skills first out of necessity then out of enjoyment.

Because of that shot in the arm that the Boy Scouts gave me, I have a critical life and career skill available in my arsenal. The 43-year-old version of myself is not like the 13 year-old Bob Confer: I look forward to speaking to groups and talking about things I enjoy be it work, Scouting, nature or public policy (well, I don’t really enjoy public policy but you get my drift).

Public speaking is a regular part of my life. Not only do I deliver multiple weekly shift meetings at the plant to dozens of my coworkers at a time, but looking at my 2017 calendar there were another 24 occasions this year when I had to speak to groups of more than 10 people at a time. They could have been tours or speaking engagements, or participating on panels -- I didn’t even count running board or business meetings.

As I write this, I’m kind of taken aback by how often I find myself in speaking roles. Maybe I was unaware of how often it happens because I see it not as one of life’s woes, but rather as one of life’s duties as a businessman or citizen. It’s a normal part of being.

That’s a way of thinking we need to share with students today. They, their parents and guidance counselors are always looking to help them develop demonstrable – and marketable -- skill sets that can be used to further their academic and, ultimately, work careers.

Public speaking is one of them. As a kid, you don’t see a payoff in the stress as you learn the art, but as an adult you see the limitless potential: you could use it at work in the private sector as a manager, sales person, project leader or newsman; in the public sector you would find it as an asset as a teacher or town councilperson; in volunteerism you would see its value in running a little league team, fire department, fundraiser, or church. You truly never know when you will need it – and you should be ready.

But, how do we prepare teens for that?

For the most part, schools are lacking in public speaking training exercises. The frequency of such activities is no different in 2017 than it was back in 1987. Kids are rarely exposed to it in classrooms and it shows: When I was taking the occasional evening class at college 12 years ago, I would cringe when the students would give presentations; they were as painful for the listeners as the speakers. I can only imagine things being worse now, what with texting and social media having ruined many a young person’s ability to legitimately communicate with others.

You know that the young adults who can speak well did a little more at school (they were in drama club or were in student government) or they were in an out-of-school organization that gave them confidence and abilities (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Future Farmers of America, 4-H). So, that’s my word of advice to parents: The classroom is just one part of your child’s foundation – get him or her into a program that would complement and supplement it.

But, what about those for whom it might be too late?

It’s never too late!

Some adults don’t find their comfort level in public speaking until well into their 30s, after work and volunteerism forced it upon them. Most adults never do – no doubt you’ve heard many a time that the average person fears speaking to the masses more than death.

But, you can overcome those insecurities no matter your age. If you missed out in high school or college, there’s always Toastmasters, a wonderful program that fosters communication skills in a warm, guiding group setting in which speakers help you and you them. There are such clubs that meet in Lockport and North Tonawanda on a regular basis.

Public speaking should never be feared. If someone can master it – to be confident, fluid, knowledgeable and engaging in front of groups – they will set-up themselves and their organizations for success.

From the 20 November 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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