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Mastering the art of public speaking

Conversation with Jane Strong a Toastmasters veteran, who talks about overcoming fear and wowing the crowd
Jane Strong, owner of Happy Feet Plus and longtime member of St. Petersburg Toastmasters Club, is photographed in her Largo store Thursday, January 28, 2021.
Jane Strong, owner of Happy Feet Plus and longtime member of St. Petersburg Toastmasters Club, is photographed in her Largo store Thursday, January 28, 2021. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Feb. 6

Times Correspondent

Jane Strong, one of the founders of Happy Feet Plus shoe stores, joined St. Petersburg Toastmasters Club in 1998. She said she wanted to improve her presentation skills, and she has succeeded – she placed third statewide at a Toastmasters speech competition in 2019. The club has been meeting on Zoom during the pandemic.

Strong, 69, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about people’s fear of speaking before crowds, the skills she has learned from Toastmasters, and how to make a strong speech.

It’s said that speaking in front of a crowd is one of the biggest fears people have.

We joke at Toastmasters, and maybe they do at conventions of other organizations, too, but most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy at a funeral. … People are terrified to get up and speak. I mean, I wasn’t afraid to get up and do it. But I knew I wasn’t good; I could be a lot better. But I still had some jitters, I’m sure.

Why do you think it’s so scary for many people?

I guess because we feel like we’re being judged maybe, or people are going to criticize us. But (at Toastmasters) they tell people, one of the things they say is, the audience wants you to do well. … So I think that helps people. They want to hear you and they want you to do well. ...

If you’re prepared and you practice – we tell people that all the time – you’re going to be much more comfortable. Because if you don’t know what you’re going to say, it’s much more nerve-wracking, obviously.

What tips have you heard from fellow club members on how to overcome the fear?

Well, the biggest thing is getting up there and doing it, honestly. And one thing about Toastmasters, it’s such a supportive group. We all want everybody to do well. We’re there to make that happen. … It’s a supportive environment and you do get feedback. … You see what you’re doing well, and you hear what you could improve on and you just get more comfortable with it.

What are the meetings like?

We invite guests to come and we recommend at our club that guests come at least three times – and now of course it’s all on Zoom – but we invite guests to come and just observe and see if they think it’s something for them. …

There’s several parts to the meeting and one of the first parts is called Table Topics. What that is, there will be one person who is already a member who will come up with questions for all the people that don’t have major speaking roles in the meeting. So even if you’re not going to be a speaker at the meeting, you will get a question and have to stand up and, in two minutes, give an answer. It’s a question that leads you in a direction so you speak about whatever the question is, if you can. And people are very nervous about that at first, but the more you do it the easier it gets. …

In our meetings currently, we will have three speakers who will give a five- to seven-minute speech, or sometimes a little longer, and each one of those people will actually have an evaluator assigned to them, and the evaluator gives a three-minute evaluation of the speech.

Jane Strong holds her trophy and certificate after placing third in a statewide Toastmasters speech competition in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Jane Strong)
Jane Strong holds her trophy and certificate after placing third in a statewide Toastmasters speech competition in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Jane Strong) [ (Photo courtesy of Jane Strong) ]

What are some of the evaluation points?

When you start off, your first speech when you join is called an icebreaker, and it’s a four- to six-minute speech about yourself. Everybody does that first… and they’re kind of introducing themselves to the club. And, you know, you think it’s going to be easy. You should know what to (say) about yourself. You need direction with that as well.

And then the evaluator will get up and just say what you did well. Now, on the newer members, maybe give them one point on what they see they can improve and then what they did the best.

But projects after that, there’s one on vocal variety. … To give a good speech, you might lower your voice if something’s really serious and then make it more lively. … And then there’s pace, to having pauses. Things like adding humor. … making a point, having a good opening, a good body in your speech and a good close. There’s a lot of different things. The more you get into it, of course, it gets more advanced.

They also count the “ahs,’' “ums’' and “you knows’'?

That’s true. We have a person at every meeting that counts those. ... Somebody gets assigned that. … They count all the “ums” and “ahs’' and “you knows’' that each person does and then they report it at the end of the meeting. So you really learn to be conscious of that.

Did you do it when you first started?

Oh yes.

We see people improve. We had a girl join just recently, even though it’s a Zoom meeting, and she had so many “ahs” and “ums,” really every second or third word. She’s only been there a month or two months at the most, and I can already see the difference. ...People are, usually they’re thinking when they say “um.” But if you just learn to pause and not say anything – and you do see people improve. It’s amazing how they do.

What are the key things you think of when you’re preparing a speech?

Well, I think of a couple of things. A strong opening. You’ve got to catch their attention in the beginning of the speech, no matter how long it is. … Even in a Table Topic, which is two minutes, but in a speech it’s even more important. A great opening that catches everybody’s attention. You have an organized body of the speech with maybe three main points and then a great close, a strong close. And often, if you can do it, tying the close of your speech back to the beginning, to the opening, is good. It makes a powerful close.

For more information and to find a club near you, go to https://www.toastmasters.org/ .