How to be a better public speaker

Public speaking can be scary, but these five tips—including practicing and soliciting feedback—will help young CPAs improve.

November 17, 2015

I chose accounting as a career because I liked the technical knowledge, and I liked the mission of protecting the public interest. I also liked that it appeared to be more of a heads-down profession instead of one that required public speaking. I learned in school—and in my first job—that written communication was important to document results and show rationale for performing procedures. I spent my first year on the job in bliss, happily auditing and documenting in detail.

But after that year, my managers asked me to start leading team meetings and communicating results to client management. I was terrified of both. I thought, “Why would anyone want to listen to someone just out of school, especially those professionals who have worked decades longer than me?” I spent hours preparing for the simplest interactions, which meant I had to find more time to work on my written deliverables.

While I was trying to overcome my anxiety, a colleague from another department invited me to a public-speaking meeting of Toastmasters to support his speech. I told him I would attend with the condition that I would not participate in any of the public-speaking activities. He agreed, and I attended my first meeting as a spectator. He continued inviting me to meetings, and I attended to support him and with the hope that I might garner some useful tips for my own communication skills.

After six months of attending meetings, I became a full member of the public-speaking organization, and I gave my first speech. I spoke in front of a crowd of about 10 people, and my nerves dictated my performance. I had practiced a five-minute speech with no filler words—such as “uh” and “um”—and delivered it in four minutes with 42 filler words. After that experience, I knew that I would need to work harder on my verbal communication skills or my career could be stunted. Over the next several years, I completed several speeches, and I felt more confident asking for opportunities to speak in my job. It took time, practice, and determination to overcome my fear of public speaking. Verbal communication is now one of my favorite aspects of my career.

Many young CPAs face the same challenge I did. If you are one of those folks, here are tips that you can use to improve your public-speaking skills:

Seek opportunities to work on your skills. Attend public-speaking clubs and workshops, teach educational sessions, lead team meetings, and present business results to a department or client.

Prepare your material in advance. The more you practice, the more confident you will be when you are speaking; record yourself speaking, and work with others to hone your key messages.

Evaluate other speakers and take notes. What do you like about speakers? What makes them effective? Write down what you learn from other speakers and incorporate the lessons into your own speaking. YouTube and TED Talks are great resources to find speakers to study. You can pick a topic that interests you to discover speaker leaders in that area, or you can search for speakers who specifically teach communication skills.

Ask for feedback all the time. Take public-speaking classes, bring evaluation forms with you whenever you speak, ask a colleague or friend to take notes, and find an accountability person like a colleague, partner, friend, or coach to help you develop and achieve verbal communication goals.

Know your strengths. Speakers develop styles such as incorporating humor and storytelling; find your own balance and know what makes you unique as a presenter. Ask others what makes you effective as a communicator.

It is possible to go from dreading public speaking to desiring public-speaking opportunities. Stay determined, keep practicing, and celebrate your successes. You can do it!

Elizabeth Pittelkow, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is director of accounting and compliance at ArrowStream Inc.

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