There's a teacher in Houston who started going to Toastmasters events a few years ago.
Her name is Ramona J. Smith, and it turns out she has a knack for public speaking.
So much so that she beat out 30,000 other public speakers in a competition to be named "World Champion of Public Speaking," at the group's international convention in Chicago last month. (For the first time, women won the first, second, and third prizes.)
If you check out the speech she gave to win the competition (embedded below), it's clear that for someone like Smith, public speaking is more than simply giving a talk. It's more like acting in a performance.
I talked with Smith this week in between the classes she teaches at MacArthur High School in Houston, and we went through her top public speaking tips for anyone who has to stand in front of a group and hold attention. Here's her best advice:
1. Be yourself.
Rule number one, Smith said, and by far the most important: Be yourself, be authentic, and share onstage.
"I think a lot of people go into speaking trying to emulate someone else," she said. But "there's only one Les Brown. There's only one Tony Robbins. There's only one Wayne Dyer. Be yourself. Be authentic."
In Smith's case, her entire winning speech is basically about the failures she's had in her life: dropping out of college four times, and being in a marriage that lasted just eight months, for example. That vulnerability, even though she doesn't go into details, clearly endears the audience to her.
"I feel like that's another reason why three women won. Because we were ourselves," she said. "We didn't try to be anything other than exactly what we were."
2. Study the greats.
Don't copy them; you won't do what they do as well as they do. But do watch and take lessons. Smith said she watched all of the finalists and other top competitors from prior years, and also spent a lot of time watching and breaking down how others she respects give speeches.
Among her favorites: Oprah Winfrey, Les Brown, Iyanla Vanzant, and Barack Obama.
"I was watching," she said. "I was taking notes. I was not trying to emulate, but I was taking notes of the little things, the meticulous things, the pauses, the body language. Even the catchy phrases. The phrase that pays is something that you need."
3. Tell a story.
Everything is a story if it's told well. And we respond to stories. We don't respond as well to lectures and prescriptions.
"When you can paint a picture for someone, they'll be able to visualize it, and they'll be able to connect with you more," she told me. "Instead of saying something like, 'The dog was red,' you can say, 'That little energetic pup was the color of merlot.'"
As a writer, we say, "Show, don't tell." But when you do tell, tell it well.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
This goes two ways: Practice speaking in general, and practice your particular speech.
In Smith's case, she actually changed and wrote her winning speech literally the night before--after giving another speech throughout the earlier stages of the competition. (That one was about feeling like an imposter.)
"I was pacing the halls of the Marriott Marquis at 4 a.m., looking crazy in my pajamas," Smith told me. "I'm up at 4 in the morning, practicing for hours and hours and hours and hours. Until I have a moment. I had a Tiffany Haddish moment: 'She ready.'"
5. Get feedback.
Some of us think we walk on water; others are our own worst critics. But what none of us has is the perspective of what it's like to watch and listen to ourselves.
"At Toastmasters, you're assigned an evaluator. Every time you give a prepared speech at Toastmasters, it's evaluated," she said.
With her new speech, Smith told me she was up half the night beforehand, practicing it for her district leader and getting feedback.
6. Control your visuals.
Never bring anything onstage that unintentionally distracts from your message. So for her winning speech, Smith wore an attractive but understated dark jacket and black heels. She looked good, but her audience naturally focused on her message--not her appearance.
"If you have on a shirt with someone's face, they're probably gonna be staring at the face," she said. "If you have a shirt where you have a lot of cleavage showing for women, it might take away from the speech. Because women are gonna be like, 'Why did she wear that?' And men are gonna be like, 'Oh, I'm so glad she wore that.'"
In other words: Live or die on your speech itself, not on distractions.
7. Control your voice
Similar in a way to controlling your appearance: Control your voice. Ensure that you don't distract, but also vary your vocal delivery.
"Please don't do Ben Stein," Smith said. "And I love Ben Stein. I love him. But have some vocal variety. Go up, go down. Go loud, go quiet. Go really, really, really fast. Then slow down. Have that vocal variety to keep the audience's attention."
Toward the end of her speech, Smith even sang a couple of lines. And the audience sang with her.
Here's Smith's winning speech. Watch it and you'll see why.