How to Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

Not everyone is comfortable addressing or speaking before an audience. Here’s some advice on how you can develop your public speaking skills.

Let’s be honest: accountants aren’t exactly known as the most outgoing or gregarious people in the room. The stereotype of the accountant as a wallflower, more at ease with numbers than people, continues to stick to the profession (in spite of the fact that the finance function today is arguably as much about business partnering as it is about bookkeeping).

But you don’t need a wildly outgoing, extraverted personality in order to be successful as an accounting or finance professional – so long as you have good overall social skills that you’re using to network with others regularly, and you’re proactive about continuing your professional development.

Still, there are times when it’s important for accountants to be able to communicate their ideas to others. Indeed, public speaking skills can dramatically accelerate an accountant or finance professional’s career.

For those who tend to be more in their natural element on the sidelines, the prospect of speaking in front of a rapt audience might seem daunting. Fortunately, public speaking is, in essence, a skill like any other – practice it, and you are sure to improve.

So what steps can you take to build your prowess in the art of public speaking? What does an effective public speaker look like? And what can mastering this skill do for your career?

Why is it so important?
It’s inevitable: as an accountant or finance professional, sooner or later you’re going to have to present data or give input in front of a group of people – the rest of your team, or your superiors, or clients and vendors.

Emily Choi, of the TMX Group, first realized that she needed improvement in this area when she took on her new role as TMX’s client relationship manager, and found herself sitting in on a lot of meetings with senior-level people.

“Whenever I had to contribute to the discussion,” she recalls, “I felt timid, spoke softly, and retreated into my chair. After walking out of a few of those meetings and reflecting on how they’d gone, I decided to look into ways to improve my presentation and speaking skills.”

Choi notes that regardless of the occasion – whether you’re delivering a formal presentation, or simply offering an opinion in a professional group setting – how you speak affects the way others perceive you. Being able to speak well makes you seem more confident and capable.

…public speaking skills can dramatically accelerate an accountant or finance professional’s career.

Likewise, Mohammed Lakhani, of Linde, Canada Limited, felt compelled to improve his public speaking skills after he was promoted to the head of finance, control, and planning at Linde. His new position required that he frequently deliver public presentations to large groups of individuals.

“No matter how technically ‘right’ the message [you’re conveying] is,” Lakhani maintains, “if it can’t be relayed in an easy-to-understand manner, with authority and clarity, it will not be well-received.”

You could be incredibly versed in a given topic, but if you’re unable to communicate your ideas in a confident, clear, and controlled manner, their substance may be lost on your audience. And ultimately, you’ll look less competent.

What you can do to improve
Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to beef up your public speaking skills. Any major city will have a plethora of public speaking classes and workshops that can be accessed by a quick Google search.

Taking a professional course is a worthwhile investment. It will provide you with solid, honest feedback from a trained instructor. Plus, you’ll be given plenty of opportunities to practice and hone your craft, in a safe, no-risk environment. Researchers estimate that we spend up to 80% of our day listening to others – which leaves us with relatively very little time to exercise our own speaking muscles. A course can offer you the space you need to work on your oratorical skills, along with an arsenal of tips and tricks that you can draw upon in your next meeting or presentation.

If you’re in Toronto, Choi recommends Toronto Business Toastmasters, which hosts weekly gatherings of business professionals. It’s a great, niche-specific, low-cost option, and is very hands-on. “Toastmasters addresses posture, volume, speed, vocal clarity, confidence, and vocabulary,” she explains. “They even helped us to curb bad habits such as ‘ums,’ ‘ah’s, ‘likes’ and ‘you knows.’”

Fortunately, public speaking is, in essence, a skill like any other – practice it, and you are sure to improve.

If your issue with speaking is related to finding the appropriate professional tone, Choi suggests hiring some sessions with a career coach, who can work with you on a one-on-one basis and help you prepare for a specific event or occasion.

Courses and coaches aren’t the only ways to go, however, if you’re committed to developing your public speaking competence. Lakhani improved his own skills by regularly seeking feedback from peers and subordinates about his style and pace of speaking, which he then used to make positive changes (though he notes that unsolicited commentary or approval “was probably the most valuable”).

Some quick tips:
Choi says the business-oriented Toastmasters class emphasized the following areas:

  • Vocal variety (“range your speed and volume, and pause after making a point”)
  • Establishing eye contact with your audience (“look up and around, focusing on one person at a time, but not too quickly”)
  • Creating well-developed structure with three or four well-researched, supporting points, followed by a clear conclusion
  • Conveying confidence through body language (“use hand gestures to emphasize a point – move around, as opposed to standing in one place”)

How long does it take to improve?
It depends on the individual, but if you’re really committed to improving and are practicing on a regular basis, you should see positive results within a matter of months.

Choi says that it took her between one and three months to notice improvements. She benefited not only from practicing, but also from observing other people and studying their speaking habits. “By watching others, you start to recognize what makes for effective delivery. Awareness is the first step towards improvement.”

How can it help your career?
Whatever your role, being a strong public speaker will force your superiors to take you more seriously. Assuming you have the other requisite skills to back up your gift of gab, you could find yourself in a good position to ask for a raise or promotion.

If you’re in a sales position, being able to present ideas or pitches to clients is invaluable, and will ensure far greater success. As an accountant, eloquence and confidence as a speaker can deliver tangible benefits; clients, for example, will be more likely to put their faith in you, give you more business, and recommend you to others. Choi says increased confidence in her ability to deliver a message clearly helps her to manage client relationships more effectively.

For the shy or introverted, effective public speaking may seem like an impossible feat. But orators are bred as much as they are born: while some people are just naturally gifted, blessed with a silver tongue at birth, others become competent and capable speakers through study and practice. With a little hands-on training, and a lot of hard work and tenacity, you, too, can be wowing audiences with your way with words.

Let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!