Coming into grad school, one of my priorities was to improve at public speaking. I don’t know how or when it happened, but at some point in the last five years, I convinced myself that being a good public speaker would be a key differentiator (competitive advantage) in my career. Unfortunately, I didn’t pursue it very much while I was at IBM, although I knew that I needed to improve. As an engineer, I rarely had to present, let alone in front of clients or a large group; situations that I can see myself encountering in the near future. Engineers (STEM types) also have to think about the common perception that we aren’t very good at communicating or at interpersonal skills.

During the last 2 quarters, I’ve learned that if you want to focus on public speaking, you have to actively pursue it. I think that it is entirely possible to make it through the 2 years here without ever giving a presentation or speaking in front of an audience, and that is very unfortunate in my opinion.

We are rapidly moving towards an idea-based economy and words are the most effective way to communicate and sell ideas. As an entrepreneur, you’ll probably have to pitch your ideas to investors at some point, as a manager you’ll have to communicate with your colleagues/team daily on initiatives and projects, as a consultant you’ll have to gain buy-in from your clients, etc. I just don’t think it is possible to escape having to communicate well.

I have been able to improve considerably at presenting and public speaking in the last 2 quarters, and I think that it should be possible for other folks to do the same. For example, this past Monday I gave a quick impromptu speech about how I use Twitter in front of 40+ students, and the next day I delivered a 5 minute presentation in my Management Communications class. In the past, both of these situations would have freaked me out, but this time, nerves were never an issue, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experiences.

Here are some things that I think anyone focused on public speaking can do at Kellogg:
<ul><li>Take on a leadership position in a club - Ideally, you’ll be able to participate in a club that has a lot of events, so that you can speak in front of your classmates as often as possible.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to plan a handful of presentations for the Consulting Club and introduce the speaker each time.  The first time I did it, I was pretty nervous but I quickly got the hang of it.</li><li>Participate in competitions - This is a bit risky, but it is a great way to get some experience doing presentations.  The main issue here is that you generally don’t have to present unless you make it past the 1st round, and that can take a lot of work. </li><li>Participate in class - There are a lot of chances to speak in class.  Professors will frequently ask the class for a piece of information before continuing, and there generally isn’t a rush of people wanting to oblige. This is where you can gain some amazing experience.  First off, you may be completely wrong (I struck out 2 out of 3 times in my DECS class one day), so you quickly realize that isn’t a big deal.  Secondly, when you are speaking you generally have everyone’s attention, so it does a great job of mimicking the experience of presenting in front of a group.  Finally, for most folks, the hardest part of public speaking is the first 2-3 minutes, and you are basically repeating this part every time.  On the flip side, there can be a negative connotation to participating too much in class, so you’ll have to find the right balance.</li><li>Participate in activities like Special K and Drag TG - These events normally require you to perform (and possibly make a mistake) in front of a large audience, all while being firmly outside of your comfort zone (possibly).  It’s a great way to get comfortable being in the limelight.</li><li>Sign up for the Improv Club (their website is out of date) - This is another great opportunity to get past the fear of making a fool of yourself in front of classmates and being in the limelight.  Furthermore, it is a lot of fun, but there aren’t a lot of slots, and it tends to fill up quickly each quarter.  Zip. Zap. Zoom.</li><li>Sign up for the Public Speaking Club - Unfortunately, this club isn’t very active, but the 2 presentations that they had the first quarter were pretty useful. </li><li>Take MORS-450, Management Communications - I would recommend this only if you are really passionate about improving because the class is expensive (~700 bid points) and doesn’t count towards any majors.  It is extremely valuable because it is one of the few avenues where you’ll receive guidance on improving both content and style, as well as a lot of feedback (from your classmates).  The class also guarantees that you’ll have to give a presentation weekly, and it culminates in a 5- and 6-minute presentation at the end that ties everything together.  Like most things in life, I think you’ll get out what you put in, so be prepared to spend a lot of time on this class.</li></ul>In the list above, I think that Management Comm, the Public Speaking club, and improv (to some extent) are the only opportunities to get feedback.

These are the opportunities that I’ve utilized so far, but I am certain there are others.  For example, I have to give a presentation in my other MORS class next week, and next quarter my team will have to give one in an Advanced Strategy class.  If you don’t see something that appeals to you, I’m certain that you could also start something up.  I’m thinking about getting a small group together next quarter to meet, practice, and provide feedback bi-weekly.

I’ll leave you with a video that I think does a good job of describing the importance of public speaking (though I can’t vouch for the DVDs that they are selling). He uses a technique that we were taught in MGMT COMM: recommendation, statistic, and anecdote.


p.s. I wasn’t able to find a Toastmasters club in walking distance of Kellogg. If you are in the 2012 class and you are gun ho about starting this up, I’ll totally be there!