Friday, May 22, 2020

Public speaking: An important life skill

By now, you’re probably sick of me being in the press.

Not only are you subjected to this weekly column but recently I haven’t been able to stay off radio and television as I’ve been game for countless interviews related to my company’s re-opening after the coronavirus shutdown.

Being able to do that wasn’t always so easy.  

When I was a 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 year and I could always lean on the equally-uncomfortable fellow speakers as we almost always spoke as groups, never singularly.

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

Because of the shot in the arm that the Boy Scouts gave me I have a critical skill available in my arsenal. The 45-year-old version of myself is not like the 15 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 back at my 2019 calendar there were another 20 occasions 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 should be 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 – but you should be ready.

But, how do we prepare teens for that?

For the most part, school courses lack public speaking training exercises. The frequency of such activities is no different in 2020 than it was back in 1990 and it might even be less today due to the countless mandates state and federal governments put on education.   

So, the focus needs to be on the extra-curricular – as mine was.

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

But, what about those for whom it might be too late – the moms and dads of those kids?

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 help them. There are such clubs that meet regularly in Western New York, even in this era of social distancing -- many are holding Zoom get-togethers, which further helps the newbies to get rid of their anxieties.

Public speaking should never be feared. It should be savored and developed. 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 25 May 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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