Speak now or forever hold your peace

Tom Scott
BSC (Hons) sport and Exercise Science, 2005
Scottish Director, Communication Consultants

Tom 2011If there is one thing that puts the fear into people more than anything else, it has to be public speaking, whether it is at a wedding or a business meeting. The feeling of hundreds of eyes on you, and they are all going to laugh when (not if) you make your first mistake. And that means you can never show your face in public again and may as well become a hermit. It can be enough to turn the bravest amongst us into quivering wrecks.

Sport and Exercise Science graduate Tom Scott, however, disagrees, and is a chap who knows a thing about public speaking. Being a two-time winner of the UK National Speech Contest and founder of the Edinburgh Speakers Club, he relishes the opportunity to stand in front of an audience.

“Public speaking doesn’t have to be a terrifying thing to do. In fact, the audience are probably more terrified than you are – they are desperate for you not to fail and make them feel uncomfortable.”

Tom comes from a family of speakers. When he was only 4 years old, his grandfather put on a public speaking event for him and his brother in the local Post Office. “I was terrified then, but after I spoke for thirty seconds any fear I had was gone”. A sure sign that the sooner you start, the easier it becomes.

Tom then went on to join a speakers club in Denny, near Falkirk, and continued throughout school and university until eventually winning his first National Speaking contest in 2008, and again in 2011. “I felt under a lot of pressure the first time, but it was more a fear of looking like an utter failure in front of my father and uncle, both of whom are accomplished speakers. However once I got going, I found myself enjoying the dialogue and rapport I have developed with my audience and that’s a big key… it doesn’t need to be frightening, it can be enjoyable.”Tom win

Not long after his 2008 win, Tom set up the Edinburgh Speakers Club. It is currently flourishing with a young and active membership, meeting fortnightly at the English Speaking Union on Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh. “It’s a safe space to practice in among friends. We do prepared and impromptu speaking and constructive evaluation all as a way to build confidence.”

For anyone looking to improve their public speaking – perhaps they have a Best Man wedding speech coming up, or a presentation at work – Tom has 3 basic tips to get you on the right road.

  1. Rehearse your speech. You can’t fake it, and if you try, you’ll be found out. Speaking to an audience is a privilege, and taking the time to prepare what you want to say is the biggest compliment you can pay to your audience for their time and attention. Trust your own expertise on the subject. You don’t have to memorise your speech word-for-word, but have a thought-line that runs through it where you know what you need to say, even if you don’t know the exact words. An audience responds to enthusiasm, sincerity and vitality so keep it lively and keep it going.
  2. A speaker has one instrument – their voice. Most use only 5-10% of what their voice is capable of doing. Think about using pitch, vibrato, volume, all ways you can avoid being a dreaded boring monotone and keep people engaged and enthusiastic with your words and actions.
  3. Finally, remember that public speaking isn’t black magic. Like everything else, it’s a learned skill and the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Watch recordings of established orators like Nelson Mandela and Christopher Hitchens, the way they could tap into their emotions and engage the listener; some speakers who try this tap into their anger, but at the expense of their message and it disengages the audience. A speaker who is showing great promise at the moment is the SNP’s Mhairi Black. She’s a raw talent, but creates a sense of urgency with her reasoned argument combined with her passionate and sincere oratorical style. Wonderful to listen to and learn from.

Tom is the Scottish Director of Communication Consultants, and you can connect with him on LinkedIn. You can follow Tom @speakerUK.

The first meeting of 2016 of the Edinburgh Speakers Club is Wednesday 20 January, and then fortnightly after that. New members who would like to improve their public speaking skills are warmly invited to attend any meeting. You can follow and contact the club @edinburghspeak

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