Daily Post: Mentor Me| The Woman Warrior

I first met Molly MacGowan after I won my first speech contest as a junior in high school. One of the judges told me to go to Toastmasters to do what I could to improve before the next competition level. Intrigued, I decided to go see what it was all about.

It turned out that Toastmasters was the perfect place to go to for help in all things public speaking.  The second meeting it was my turn to go to the podium so I could give my speech contest speech again so they could critique me. I remember shaking and reading my speech and seeing Molly’s eyes light up and a smile cross her face. She cared about me, she wanted me to do well. I remember the feedback on my delivery: make eye contact, don’t talk so fast. I went on to win the next competition level and compete in the regional competition, thanks to this club. The fact is, Molly was one of the reasons I kept going back. I ended up joining the Yreka Toastmasters as their youngest member and stayed until I graduated from high school. Now, I visit them on holidays and give guest speeches.

Molly is a leader, you might even call her a warrior. She’s witty, fun-loving, gracious, full of common sense and takes time to notice people. She is living a full life–she worked in a jail as a guard, competes as an eagle in figure skating competitions and dotes on her granddaughter. She’d always slip me notes of encouragement and things to remember to work on when I’d finish a speech. As she began giving me rides every week, she became my mentor of sorts. We’d have long talks in the car about life, whether it was about school, politics, love and pain, there were no limits. She said three things that have stayed with me to this day.

  1. The first is to not let fear keep you from living your life. I asked her why she took risks, if there was the chance that she’d fall–she replied that life is far too boring and that even if she made a mistake that she would have time to fix it. She told me that she used to have a pessimistic view on life until she realized she had better things to do with her time. So she doesn’t worry. About anything.
  2. The next piece of advice she gave me was, “It’s not about what you do but who you know.” This has helped me consider professional development and what I can do to build connections with others (I think public speaking and working with teams is a good way to get started).
  3. The third was the importance of perspective, that there are always three viewpoints: what you saw, what I saw and the truth. What I get out of this is that we are not always right and that truth is subjective by nature.
Molly competing at a Toastmasters Humor Speech Contest in Redding, CA.
Molly competing at a Toastmasters Humor Speech Contest in Redding, CA in 2012.

Molly came to support me at future speech contests centered around school and in turn I’d go watch her compete at Toastmasters speech contests. From a speaker’s perspective, I learned a lot about watching her preparation shine while she conducted meetings, how she’d remember to do things the proper way when others forgot and the way she exuded confidence when she was the one giving speeches. I’ve mirrored a lot of her technique, and have seen what an effective speaker does, especially when speaking on the fly. Where would I be without this spectacular, 73-year-old woman who could easily talk in front of 1,000 people without breaking a sweat? I enjoyed having a sit-down interview with her last summer when I interned for Siskiyou Daily News, and wrote two articles about her. One was a quirky story about a Labrador retriever and Molly and the other one was about  wrapping up the skating season. We even went out to a luncheon and the cabaret  theatre together. I realize that she’s popped up more times in my life than I can count. Molly and I have crossed paths many times and she has always in the background. The warrior is watching out for me.

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The Speech That Will Win Them Over

You remember that speaker that droned on for an hour who spoke in a monotone and used too many complex words. Chances are, you lost interest in all of about two minutes. After the meeting, you complained to all your friends and they sympathized with you.

You also remember that speaker that grabbed your attention with a thought-provoking question, statement or humor. You sat up in your chair a little straighter and couldn’t look away. Later, you raved about the speech and found yourself wondering how they got you so interested in the first place.

This post is all about making your speech the best it can be. If you were just asked to give a speech, take a deep breath and keep reading. If you volunteered to give a speech and are a little unsure about the basics, don’t go away.

I’ve been in Toastmasters for about 2.5 years now and have participated in prepared, evaluative and impromptu speaking in the Toastmasters Program. Toastmasters is a program that is designed to help you improve your public speaking and leadership skills. It’s highly effective for many people because it’s all about learning to communicate in a safe environment, and people in the club want you to well. (It focuses mostly on the delivery of a speech, as opposed to content). I’m also the president of SPECS (Students Practicing Excellent Communication Skills) club at UCI, which is an extension of Toastmasters and teaches people the fundamentals of speaking in just a few short weeks. Toastmasters has taught me to prepare my roles in advance, listen to others and learn how to deliver an effective speech.

Speech Tips (these are by no means definitive, but they come from my observations as a Toastmaster):

1. Tell stories. As humans, we’re naturally drawn to how and why things happen, told in narrative. Stories can inspire, entertain and say things that average discourse cannot. Think about your topic and the target audience when preparing stories, whether they be true or entirely made up.

2. Use humor. Appropriate humor can liven up a conference room (or any room!) and will help gain rapport with people you don’t know. Your audience will likely be more receptive to you, especially if you can use self-deprecating humor because it shows that you can laugh at yourself. Memorize the jokes or other lines so that you can say them smoothly in your speech, making sure to pause while they laugh before moving on.

3. Try to avoid “filler” words. And, like, um and ah are all distracting to the message that you’re trying to share. Instead, replace the filler words with pauses. Collect your thoughts and resume talking.

4. State your purpose. Let the audience know why you are speaking, and try to do this in the first few sentences or they will lose interest. Be clear, and annunciate your words.

5. Don’t memorize or read your speech. The audience will be able to tell if you’re uncomfortable and will notice this if you forget a certain phrase. If you don’t know the speech entirely and have it written down, read from it and avoid the unnecessary pain.

6. Learn how to improvise. I think this is the best speech tip, especially because nothing happens exactly the way you think it will go. Be flexible when you talk, and don’t panic when you don’t know what to say. Focus on your topic, talk yourself to your next point and move on. You improvise everyday when you talk with friends about your interests and life, so it can’t be much different in a speech.

7. Practice! So much, in fact, that your dog, cat, grandma and roommates have gotten sick of it. Then practice it again. Try practicing in front of the mirror, and time yourself with a stopwatch. I recommend knowing what you want to talk about generally and saying it out loud to yourself until you feel comfortable with it. Get a notecard and write your main points (or transition words which get you talking) on it in large print. Stick to about 3-4 phrases on a card or write down a statistic or two that you have trouble remembering.

Resources that are great for the speech novice or as a refresher for experienced speakers:

Speech Tips from Toastmasters International

Speech Tips from Do Something

Speech Tips from Forbes

10 Fail Proof Tips for Delivering a Powerful Speech

Any questions? Write a comment!