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I am always looking for lessons that life can teach me. I believe there’s always an opportunity to learn something new, and that we should continuously search for opportunities to gain new knowledge. One such opportunity presented itself in the form of a competition. I recently attended a Toastmasters International division competition.

For those of you unfamiliar with Toastmasters International, it is an organization where people learn how to improve their public speaking skills, network, and ultimately become more effective communicators.

Typically, you would attend a local club in your area, or an area that’s convenient for you, that meets regularly. It’s a smaller, more personal setting to help you sharpen your speaking skills. As a member, you follow a guided path of speeches to deliver to your local club. The speeches range from introducing yourself, to telling a story, to inspiring others. There’s no pressure to deliver any speeches, but if you’re there to improve, then it would behoove you get up and speak.

You can compete to add an additional layer of pressure. The settings range from competing against local speakers, to competing on an international stage.

In this divisional competition, speakers were competing against other Toastmasters in the Silicon Valley area. The competition was divided into two segments.

The first half of the competition was all about impromptu speaking. “Table Topics,” as they’re called, are a test of your ability to speak articulately on the spot. All competitors were given the same topic: “What daily routine do you value the most? Each competitor receives 1-2 minutes to answer the question.

The second half of the competition involved premeditated, rehearsed speeches. Each competitor was allowed to give a speech of their choice and had a time limit of 5-7 minutes.

While witnessing the Toastmasters compete, I observed 5 key lessons that will make your presentation or speech more interesting, more engaging, and more memorable.

If you want to teach the audience, make it personal.

Each speaker weaved in a personal story to emphasize the point of their speech. This tactic is used a lot in self-help books, success stories, personal development articles, and even personal finance blogs.

Using a personal story does two things. First, it builds the speaker’s credibility; the presenter is sharing a lesson they learned from experience. The firsthand account of the story makes the life lesson more believable because it is coming from a source of tangible truth.

Second, it makes the idea more relatable. I do not know many people who enjoy being lectured at or being told explicitly what to do by someone of authority. However, if a lesson is coming from someone who feels like an equal, the same wisdom you originally ignored suddenly seems like sound advice. Using a personal story empowers the speaker to enact the concept of “I can do it, and you can too!”

If you want to paint a picture, use nonverbal communication.

Only one of the prepared speeches from the competition utilized a visual-aid, albeit the visual aid was not used until the very end of the speech. Instead, the speakers used precise, detailed imagery through their adjectives and their body language.

For example, one speaker described his family by taking a step back from the audience and using his arm and hand to measure out the different height of his family members. His wife, measured at his shoulder. He then described her warm, loving, and motherly traits.

To describe his youngest daughter, he mentioned that she was 1.5 years old. Then he walked across the room to his right, bent over, and signaled that her height measured up to the middle of his thigh. He then proceeded to describe her innocent personality.

To describe his oldest daughter, he told the audience she was 3.5 years old. He then took a few steps laterally to his left, placed himself in between the space where he described his wife and his youngest daughter, and bent over to measure her height at hip level. He then explained how her inquisitive nature makes for interesting stories.

The speaker stood alone on the stage. However, emphasized the importance of his family in the story by painting an imaginary picture of their heights and position on stage.

If you want to make your story more memorable, use imagery.

Q: What do you call a presenter with fantastic nonverbal cues and body language, who cannot speak?

A: A mime.

Mimes are fantastic at nonverbal communication, not so much at speaking. Source: gettyimages

Nonverbal cues were part of all the presentations. They were used with precision and control to emphasize points in the stories. However, if we take away the imagery from the presenters’ gestures, then we also remove the context. Now we have our mimes!

The use of imagery alone painted a sufficient picture of the story for me; the nonverbal communication supplemented the well-crafted descriptions of situations and emphasized what was transpiring.

With eloquent descriptions, speakers were able to draw the audience in and immerse us into their story. Imagery is a great tactic to draw the audience in and bring us along for the ride during a trip down memory lane.

If you want to get better, it will take time

One commonality between the five speakers was that they were members of Toastmasters for more than 1.5 years (the least common denominator was 1.5 years). Additionally, in order to compete at the division level, a speech must win at two smaller competitions as a prerequisite. In fact, the winner of the prepared speech segment was a 20+ year veteran of Toastmasters.

Each of the speeches were polished, refined, and rehearsed. No one used notes as they smoothly flowed from point to point within their speech. The speeches inspired me and gave me insight into what my presentation skills could be with enough time and practice.

A list of all the different Toastmasters club within the Bay Area. You can find a local club near you by entering your specific location or address. Source: Toastmasters International

If you want to keep the audience engaged, throw in some humor

Another parallel shared among the competitors was humor. At some point within the story, the speakers managed to make the audience laugh at least once. Getting the audience to laugh involved more than a simple punchline. Actually, the punchline of some of the jokes seemed to be the easiest part.

Building up to the punchline required much more effort. The humorous situation woven into the story unfolded with a combination of correctly used imagery and nonverbal communication to engage the audience. The speaker made the audience feel as if we were in the story ourselves. As the audience was fully engaged and interested in what was going to happen next. That’s when the speaker hit us with the punch-line (pun intended).

Throwing in some humor gives you as a speaker an opportunity build up the audience’s attention in anticipation for perfectly timed and set up punchline.

While it was my first Toastmasters competition, it definitely won’t be my last. I want to refine my skills as a communicator and the best way for me to do that is learn from others. This competition taught me some valuable life lessons. Additionally it provided me with great presentation techniques to implement during my speeches.

Readers, what are techniques you use to make your speeches more engaging, more interesting, and more memorable?