No fear of public speaking here

DeWayne Bartels
Leslie McKnight, left, helps Sarah Storey Smiles prepare for a speech and role-playing exercise.

Sarah Storey Smiles writes copy in the public relations department of Methodist Medical Center. Writing, however, is not the only form of communication she is enthused about.

Public speaking is Smiles’ other communication love, which places her in the minority of Peorians.   

But, Smile is in the majority when she steps into a Peoria Riverfront Toastmaster’s Club meeting.

Needed skill  

Toastmasters, according to several local members of the Riverfront Club, is a fun experience. But, they add, it is more about honing better verbal communication skills, which equates to a very marketable skill.

Peorian Aloysia Mitchell, a Toastmasters district governor and a management analyst for the Peoria Police Department, said young professionals especially benefit from speech training and practice.

Mitchell smiled and said it is easy to tell if one needs help at verbal communication.

“How do you know if you need help? Either you just know, or you can tell by the blank stares on people’s faces when you talk to them,” she said.

Employers, however, are not smiling when it comes to the topic of verbal communication skills. The U.S. workforce, when it comes to verbal communication skills, is woefully ill-prepared for the demands of the workplace, both today and tomorrow.

That is the assessment of employers in “Are They Ready For Work?” a 2006 study done by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management.

Oral communications ranked among the top five applied skills reported by employer respondents as “very important,” but employers in the survey said only 24.8 percent of four-year college graduates earn an excellent rating for oral communications.

Big help

Smiles and Mitchell said the skills they have learned in Toastmasters has forwarded their careers and increased job satisfaction.

“I got started because I wanted to get over my fear of public speaking. This has helped me immensely. I’ve had to address the city council in the past and without prior notice. That’s not an issue now,” Mitchell said. “I still get a little nervous, a few butterflies. But, Toastmasters has taught me to control it.”

Mitchell said speech training and practice has taught her to think quickly on her feet. She said that is a skill any employer likes.

And, Mitchell said, there is no one who cannot benefit from speech training and practice.

“Even President Obama, who is an accomplished speaker, is tested. I’d say only 15 to 30 percent of people are effective speakers,” Mitchell said.

Smiles agreed with Mitchell’s assessment.

“I’ve noticed people in the news media — like Anderson Cooper — and other eloquent speakers out there could improve,” she said. “Even Obama could improve.”

Buck Medley, president of the Riverfront Club, said the need for training and practice comes from the fact that good verbal communication involves more than words.

“It’s words, action and reactions,” Medley said. “It’s also about passion and excitement. It’s about being conscious of what you are saying and how you are saying it.”

Storey said Medley is right and that this realization comes from practice. 

“My motto now is ‘Concise is nice.’ I now try to get my point across in as few words as possible. People get too worried about impressing people with big words,” Storey said.

“I was very shy in high school, painfully shy. Now, I look forward to talking in front of groups. It can be overcome. Enthusiasm is important. I think people are full of self-doubt. All you need is to build self-confidence.”