Never too late to learn public speaking

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Lynne Strang

As a certified project manager and leadership development trainer, Amy Brener regularly gives public interviews. It’s something she used to dread, but not anymore —  thanks to a decision she made back in 2008.

At age 49, Brener joined Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. She’s hardly alone when it comes to those who want to become better public speakers. More than half of Toastmasters’ members are 45 or older, a 2015 survey showed.

As the joke goes, many people fear public speaking even more than death. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to say that the average funeral goer would rather be in the coffin than give the eulogy.

Why put yourself out there and speak in public? Consider these seven benefits:

1) You become a more effective communicator. As you give talks, you get better at organizing your thoughts as well as listening to others. This helps all kinds of everyday situations — from leading a homeowners meeting, to expressing your needs to a care provider.

2)  Your confidence grows with each talk.  Just because you harbor a lifelong fear doesn’t mean you can’t get over it.

“Public speaking is a learnable skill — and you’re never too old learn a new skill,” said Brener, now a top official for a Northern Virginia Toastmasters district with close to 3,000 members.

3) Speeches are great places to share stories. The best speakers illustrate their points through storytelling.

“Public speaking is a natural fit for those with a lifetime of different experiences,” said Gwendolyn Talbot, a speech language pathologist who joined Toastmasters in 1986 at age 40. “The older you get, the more stories you have.”   

4) You establish yourself as an authority. “Historically, baby boomers have been agents of change for a wide range of issues, from professional opportunities for women to the Vietnam War,” said Talbot. “Now they can use this phase in their lives to speak out on new causes.”

Julie Keller, a one-time chemical patent agent who became an advocate for gun violence prevention, knows this first-hand. “I set a goal for myself to become more comfortable with speaking about my issue,” she said. “I feel that this new skill set is crucial in getting my important message across, and I have come to enjoy speaking more than any other aspect of my advocacy work.”

5) New opportunities emerge. Speaking in front of groups lets others know about you, ask questions, and better understand what you have to offer.

For Jeff Williams, it’s been an effective way to market Bizstarters, a startup coaching business he founded to help 50-and-older entrepreneurs. “I commonly receive a dozen or more email inquiries from prospective clients after I speak publicly or give a webinar,” he said.

6) You gain a competitive advantage. “When you’re older and changing jobs, it’s not always by choice,” noted Brener. “Public speaking skills can give you an edge over other candidates.”

 Likewise, entrepreneurs can use presentations to distinguish themselves from competitors. “It’s probably the most effective way to let people ‘sample you and your ability,’” said Williams. 

Instead of a sales pitch, he adds, you can share past challenges that you overcame by applying your skills — and maybe weave in some humor.

7) You’ll stay challenged. Art Koff, who was in his 60s when he founded Retired Brains in 2003, said, “I find that public speaking is great ‘brain exercise,’ and that the preparation time prior to each speech or presentation expands my knowledge of the specific area I am addressing.”

The benefits don’t stop once your speech is over. “In many cases, after a speech or presentation there are questions from the audience that open up entire new ways of thinking that I never considered during my preparation,” Koff said. “This sometimes changed my approach and thinking on the subject.”

If all these reasons aren’t enough to coax you to a lectern, here’s one more: Public speaking can be an enjoyable way to share your knowledge, experiences and ideas with others. With practice, you can learn how to make your butterflies fly in formation. And you just might find yourself having fun.

Lynne Strang is a freelance writer and the author of Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs: Eight Principles for Starting a Business After Age 40.