Here’s a phrase I teach often: “It is not bragging if it is a fact.” The fact that it took me over twenty years in the workforce to have someone provide, on record (written in my annual performance appraisal), a positive comment about my communication skills gives me the right and obligation to stand on the mountaintop screaming that I’m gaining the skills and confidence to be an effective communicator. You will learn that a person conveying a message does not automatically have the respect and trust of the audience. It must be earned. Part of earning this trust and respect is building credibility with that audience. My intention in this chapter is to build my credibility with you, the audience, by sharing information that will enable you to get to know me and understand who I am as a communicator and leader.
I went to the University of Delaware. On my first day of freshman orientation, I was told I needed to choose a major and “undecided” was not one of the options. My major could change over time, they said, but I had to at least commit to something. I like to say that I picked my major alphabetically. There was no money in Anthropology, so that was out. I never like dissecting a frog, so Biology was not an option. Everyone was in Business, and I wanted to be a little different, so I chose Communication. It didn’t hurt that the female-to-male ratio was rumored to be forty to one (the truth was closer to twenty to one, but it didn’t seem to help my love life in college, anyway).
Being a painfully shy and introverted individual had the potential to hold me back personally and professionally. I had to take action for myself if I wanted any success in the real world. I was given an early lesson, by being told I had to select a major. I was being forced to take action if I wanted to develop myself. I luckily selected a major that would become a focal point for the rest of my life as I struggled to grasp, improve, and finally sharpen my communication. I am thankful for the choice, even if it still took many more years to gain the confidence to become a master.
My specialty in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication taught me the importance of personal interaction. Both in society and at work, success comes to those who communicate effectively. I had a drive to succeed and saw spurts of success; however, I didn’t see the success at the speed I would have wanted. The delayed success was due to my inability to sharpen the skills I had and develop the ones bursting to come out.
I could put two sentences together; in fact, I could put two, three, or eighteen sentences together without a breath. As an introvert, I found that I tried to say everything necessary as quickly as possible in the hope that I would be done as soon as possible. Needless to say, I lacked key communication skills, like knowing the audience or learning to be clear. Having a communication degree did not in itself make me an effective communicator.
After college, my early professional successes were inconsistent. I started on the phones in a collections call center. My shyness was not going away, and I felt it would be better if I didn’t have to interact face to face. Except, somewhere, I must have forgotten about the daily interactions with my peers and management. Performance-wise, I achieved decent results and my confidence increased with my ability to speak to customers I didn’t have to see. My ability to confidently speak face-to-face to my peers and management team, however, was awkward at best. As long as my numbers spoke for me, I didn’t think I needed anything else.
My results did speak for themselves enough to land me a management position, in which I was responsible for leading people who worked on the phones. This was the beginning of a roller coaster ride in success. My inability to effectively connect with people who worked for me and for whom I worked left my confidence shot. I couldn’t assertively communicate, let alone give my team the assurance that they were in good hands. Unfortunately, my drive to succeed far outweighed my ability to target specific opportunities. Every time I was knocked down, I worked twice as hard to get back up. I was demoted twice in my corporate life and changed positions often. Sometimes, the frequent positions changes were because I was wanted for my knowledge or skillset, while other times because the company needed to move me on because of my derailing behavior. I was a hard worker, but did not always work smart.
What I didn’t realize early on was that I needed a career coach. Objective people were ready to give me advice, but I was not proactive enough to ask for it and I was too defensive to accept it. My introverted behavior did not let enough people get to know the true me. They saw only the surface me. I was a hard driven, dedicated individual who had trouble sending and receiving messages. My overall success was stagnating and possibly moving in the wrong direction.
I have now worked at one of the largest financial institutions in the United States for over twenty years. I have been in a variety of roles, ranging from people management to administration, and just about everything else in between. Within the last six years, my company was bought, faced the global recession, and an announcement of significant future job cuts. Considering how internally focused I was, it took me far too long to realize that I had to be my own career coach. I learned that career effectiveness and professional development came through a proactive approach and a desire to improve. With the potential ramifications of the macroeconomics swirling around me, I started to realize that I had no choice. I needed help.
Once the choice was made to take a more proactive approach to improve myself, I significantly improved my ability to communicate up, to communicate down, and to communicate to peers and business partners. Confidence was gained in my ability to network, with that self-confidence bubbling over in my presentation skills. I was beginning to take an active leadership approach, which in turn made a difference in the businesses I oversaw and interacted with.
Action had to be taken so I was not left behind. I didn’t want to hide and hope when key employment decisions were made. I wanted to do more than survive; I wanted to thrive. My communication skills were my Achilles heel, and I needed to fix them. You many not believe the extent of my opportunities, so I thought I would share some examples of communication-specific quotes directly from more than twenty years of my performance appraisals:
“Tom needs to be more concise with his communication style. He needs to ensure he understands his audience and his ability to adapt based on who he is interacting with.”
“[Tom needs to] ask questions to ensure a full understanding.”
“Position ideas with your audience in mind…need to be more confident in presentations to senior management; don’t second guess-self.”
“Avoid shutting down when others don’t agree with you.”
There were far too many years of running on a treadmill of feedback without jumping at my main opportunities: communication, leadership, and confidence. These are the skills needed most in the business world! Maybe my problem was that I didn’t always believe the feedback; as a communication major, I believed the skills were already there. Maybe the skills were simply being overlooked somehow or not accurately being assessed.
It finally began to sink in that I would never advance—or that my job might actually be on the line—if I didn’t take steps to improve. I still took the slow train to improvement; but at least I got onboard. The theme: I had to finally cross a threshold and break myself out of my comfort zone; I needed to get past my trepidation. Baby steps were taken toward the process of improvement, but at least I was moving in the right direction. Even with a slow process, there was momentum. Once I saw my actions begin to generate praise and increased responsibility, I went on a mission to proactively grasp the most effective ways to improve my communication and leadership skills. Although no two paths are the same for any individual, I thought I would share the actions taken that made a difference in my career.
- I found some trusted mentors.
- I became a mentor (shockingly, teaching others reinforced what I needed myself).
- I started a networking routine to meet with senior leaders I didn’t know.
- I gained courage and forced myself to ask key development questions in one-on-one settings and group settings. I began asking anyone and everyone, “What can I do to improve?” After some hesitation and surprise at the question, people were more than willing to share their thoughts and appreciated that I was asking. It seemed as if my mistakes were almost a side note to the main discussion, since people knew I was giving the maximum effort to make myself stronger.
- When feedback was provided, I always followed-up with, “How?” If someone tells you to be faster, more efficient, more effective, etc., you are still not being given the direction needed to improve. You have to ask, “How?”
- I joined Toastmasters.
- I stopped worrying about what people thought of me and started paying more attention to just getting the job done. I put effort into developing the skills needed to gain trust and respect for the work I was doing (the rest would take care of itself).
- After more than twenty years, I finally saw in writing the following comment: “Tom’s organizational and communication skills are his key strengths.”
This was the first time I didn’t read that I needed to improve something in my communication. The biggest change was my confidence. I was also learning the importance of two-way dialogue. Although still introverted, I was beginning to understand the power of building strong relationships, a skill I would that needs to always be honed and will always work for you.
I want to share a story of how a little action can turn into a big success. After joining Toastmasters, I began working through the various certifications in communication and leadership. My managers at work became aware of the certifications and started to recognize me. The word slowly spread to groups of people who didn’t know me. When they did get to know me, it was as “an effective communicator.” My past communication gaps were being left behind. In social settings where I had previously kept quiet, I now threw in a couple of conversation starters about my public-speaking endeavors. These conversations led to strong friendships and beneficial networking. I was even getting invitations outside my company to speak to other organizations.
Word continued to spread within my corporate environment. I was tapped on the shoulder at a meeting of local managers and my peer asked me to meet with her newer managers about effective communication. It was hard to imagine! The person told far too many times that he needed to improve his communication skills was being asked to teach others how to communicate. I was in heaven. People started to listen to me. They actually sought my advice and messages because I could confidently convey them in a way that was easily understood and relate to them to the audience. I shared my mistakes and showed them that they, too, could persevere and succeed. I was gaining credibility from a group of people who saw my own growth and through that recognized that they, too, could improve.
My informal professional-development series was getting attention. Another manager in a different department asked if I could formalize the event and speak to his group of managers monthly. These sessions were a hit, and they morphed into topics that people could pragmatically develop and use for their own individual development: writing résumés, networking, organizing, managing time, managing different generations, interviewing, and, of course, overcoming fear of public speaking. The series then made me eligible for the National Speakers Association (NSA).
A month after getting into the NSA, I was selected as the 2010-11 District 45 Toastmaster of the Year. I was pleasantly surprised and humbled to see that my work was starting to pay off not just for myself, but for others. It was an honor to be selected to represent my district, knowing that there are only eighty-one Toastmaster Districts in the world (representing over 270,000 members). I felt like I was living the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. As the author Laura Joffe Numeroff writes, “If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for some milk. When you give him some milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw.” The story continues with constant add-ons. In my case, I was finding ways to succeed that fed the motivation to want more. This painfully shy and introverted individual was making a name for himself in the field of public speaking.
As a teacher and mentor, not only was I improving other people’s careers, I was improving my own, because I had to practice what I preached. More importantly, I was managing my time effectively, building a strong network, and constantly finding ways to improve. I was making a difference to others and making myself stronger. All of this happened because I finally took action to improve my communication skills and gain confidence in my abilities—something that required more than just a simple leap of faith.
In order to set myself on this road initially, I knew I needed to take action to increase my confidence. I knew I needed Toastmasters. I even lied to myself that the only reason I was joining was to kick-start a dormant corporate club on my company campus that had not met in over a year. My original thoughts were simply to build up my résumé. I had no idea how it would change my life after I joined in September 2008. The people I have met over the years through that organization provided encouragement and support to participate in speech contests. I moved from an unofficial club consultant to the Vice President of Education. Our club, Dirigo (“I Lead”) Toastmasters, went from never holding a meeting in over a year to being well respected within District 45, which includes over one hundred clubs within Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. I now hold advanced communication and advanced leadership certifications with the organization, including a High Performance Leadership (HPL) certification for writing my first book based on the professional development series. My successes seemed to be never ending, simply because I stared my fears in the face and won.
The contests have always tested my will to break down the constant trepidation and angst of being in front of a large group of people. I may never get rid of these feelings entirely, but the shakes, sweats, and heat rushing up from my neck to my ears are no longer the first and only feelings I get. I am now full of energy and excitement to share my messages and stories with the audience.
I found consistent success when competing in speech contests, which only pushed me to go further. I have entered all types of contests to broaden my skill set and to continue to test my comfort zone specific to humorous speeches, inspirational speeches, impromptu speeches, and speech evaluations. I have been fortunate enough to represent the state of Maine on multiple occasions in these contests.
I may need to change the word “consistent.” Actually, I have found inconsistency as the pressure has tightened at the higher levels. I have forgotten words in competition, frozen on stage because I could not remember the first line of my speech, and even repeated lines when I had a shot at advancing to the Toastmasters International World Semi-finals. I have presented with an actual jackhammer behind me and watched in horror as props were knocked over. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
A speech will never be perfect and I was learning to keep moving forward after I made mistakes. More importantly, I had to identify the next actions needed for me to improve the next time. I was growing as a speaker when I actively sought to be better. I took on a mentor after my first taste of the bigger stage when I went to the Toastmasters District 45 International Finals in May 2009, one who has reached the World Semi-finals twice (and advanced to the World Finals once). His advice as a formal mentor and fellow competitor forced me to develop. I have even changed my practice routines: where I previously ensured that the house was dead quiet before practicing, I now can’t wait for my kids’ piano rehearsals to start. I also invite the howling dog into the room so I have distractions while I refine my skills. The goal is to strive for perfection and grow from the experience. No speech experience will ever be the same, but we should always strive to make it the best it can be.
The premise of this book is not to turn every reader into a professional speaker. The business of professional speaking is an art that needs constant nurturing. However, simple effective communication needs the same cultivation. Everyday skills that can be practiced and refined will turn an ordinary interaction into an extraordinary experience. Your enjoyment and success will skyrocket, along with your confidence level. I am not on the road each day pounding the pavement looking for speaking gigs. I have a day job. However, after years of toiling with being average and inconsistent, I have taken actions needed to succeed.
I’m not the most charismatic person. However, I am now building a strong name for myself because I am learning to relate to people with a message they want to hear. More importantly, I am proud of my ability to finally do something that needed to be done years before. My simple message will resonate with any audience at the core of their thoughts and beliefs.
- Effective public speaking is more about confidence than communication skills.
- Public speaking is more than a lectern, podium, or microphone; it is everywhere.
- The ability to speak publicly is not as hard as you may imagine— the hardest part is taking the first steps.
- Public speaking is a learned skill that must continually be developed.
- Your own success, both personal and professional, is correlated to your ability to communicate effectively.
As an audience member listening to presentations for years, I feel qualified to recognize what people want to hear. You should, too. As a public speaker, I have always had a clear vision for what I wanted, but often avoided the situation or taking the actions necessary to improve. I have found confidence and success on the other side of the podium. I know that I now have the skills and self-belief necessary to provide what the audience wants and needs. You too have a strong message inside you right now that is ready to come out. If I can make a difference by transforming my fear into success, you can, too.
Thomas B. Dowd III’s books available in softcover, eBook, and audiobook (From Fear to Success only):
- Down the Chute: A Toboggan Tale (children’s book)
- Now What? The Ultimate Graduation Gift for Professional Success
- Time Management Manifesto: Expert Strategies to Create an Effective Work/Life Balance
- Displacement Day: When My Job was Looking for a Job…A Reference Guide to Finding Work
- The Transformation of a Doubting Thomas: Growing from a Cynic to a Professional in the Corporate World
- From Fear to Success: A Practical Public-speaking Guide received the Gold Medal at the 2013 Axiom Business Book Awards in Business Reference
- The Unofficial Guide to Fatherhood