Publish date:

Speak Up!

Working on your public speaking will enhance your career.

It's your moment. Time to make your pitch.

Lights dim, shades go down, the projector hums quietly, curious faces gaze forward in the muted conference room light.

But your stomach bubbles, your skin feels clammy, and your mouth is dry. You can't wait for the darned thing to be over.

Sound familiar?

That sounds like me -- like a lot of us, in fact, even the most seasoned and experienced presenters. We all work at it. Believe me, there's little doubt that improving your presentation skills is a great way to advance your career.

Sure, you could drop some cash to hire professional help, such as a

voice coach, speechwriter or image consultant, to work on some of these issues.

But here's what I suggest: Simply join your local chapter of

Toastmasters International, the decades-old public speaking organization.

Toastmasters is an excellent offline, pressure-free way to sharpen your speaking and general communication skills.

New members start off giving an "ice breaker" speech in which they introduce themselves to an audience in a scant three to five minutes. It's much harder than it sounds!

Once you've recovered from that experience, you write and give a persuasive speech or humorous speech -- or even try your hand at

storytelling or reciting poetry.

Sound goofy? Maybe, but there is no denying that the time on the podium is valuable. Most even find it fun.

You'll also get a chance to practice that yucky impromptu thing you do all the time at work.

Toastmasters calls it "table topics." The words "Can you give the group a five-minute update on your project?" will no longer put you into a deer-in-headlights freeze.

TheStreet Recommends

Click here for the video version of this story from Jennifer Openshaw.

Speechwriting and delivery are a big part of Toastmasters.

But you also learn where you put those hands, how to use a lectern or podium, how to start and end your pitch and a whole lot more. There will be no more distractions to undermine the power of your words; never again will you stand frozen in front of a crowd, wringing your hands and saying, "Umm..."

Here are some of the more obvious benefits:

  • Organization. You'll learn how to organize your thoughts -- before and during the pitch -- to better hold a crowd's attention.
  • On-your-feet thinking. You'll improve improvisation, the casual banter that will help you make the most of the moment you find yourself in the elevator with the big boss.
  • Leadership. There are lots of chances to chair a meeting, MC an event, introduce speakers and lead feedback and wrap-up sessions. You can even run the club if you'd like.
  • Evaluation. Toastmasters makes a big deal of the evaluation process. Audience members evaluate the presenter, then deliver those evaluations as a minispeech. You learn a lot about yourself -- and from the strengths and weaknesses of others.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Probably most of all, you get a chance to do actual presentations in front of a neutral, nonthreatening audience. That boosts not only skill but also confidence and comfort in front of large groups.

Meetings are weekly, usually at lunchtime, and a year or so of Toastmasters can make a big difference. It's cheap -- $20 gets you in, and the national organization requires $27 in dues each year. Local chapters may add a bit, and of course, there's the cost of the lunch.

There are over 10,000 local chapters -- the nearest can be found

online. Some chapters are set up on company sites, but I'd recommend going outside to diversify your skills -- and your audience.

I should add that Toastmasters is a classic way to build your professional network and LifeNet (see my book "

The Millionaire Zone") outside your workplace.

Toastmasters, of course, isn't the only way to beef up your presentations. I once took singing lessons not only to sharpen my voice skills but also to get audience experience in a stressful situation.

In fact, even standing up to sing in a karaoke bar can help you overcome fears and improvise. I don't know how the IRS feels about deducting that expense, but you'll hone presentation skills and have some fun.

The bottom line? A relatively small investment in Toastmasters or similar speaking exercise can bring a big career payoff.

Jennifer Openshaw, a passionate advocate for helping Americans improve their finances and build their personal fortunes, is CEO of

The Millionaire Zone and America Online's personal finance editor. In addition to appearing regularly on TV shows such as "Oprah" and "Good Morning America" and on CNN, Openshaw is host of ABC Radio's "Winning Advice" and serves as an adviser to some of America's top corporations. Her new book,

"The Millionaire Zone," will hit bookstores in April 2007.