Mention Industry 4.0, and what usually comes to mind is tech, robotics, automation, and the Internet of Things. So one might believe that only technical expertise, such as coding/programming, data science/analytics, and cyber security, will guarantee a future-proof career. But there is one overlooked skill, that even Warren Buffett swears by, which can “raise your value by 50%”. And that skill is public speaking and communication.
Effective public speaking and communication skills are cross-functional; they augment nearly all other skill sets. And they are not only valuable in your career but also in your personal life. Developing and sharpening these skills early on in life, will have massive future payoffs.
My Personal Experience
I absolutely hate public speaking. When you have hundreds or thousands of eyes glaring at you, it’s a primal response to cower in fear. Your brain tells you that you’re about to get eaten.
This is how I feel when I get on stage. Yet I’m supposed to be relaxed and at ease. I’m suppose to smile, open up the space in front of me with warm gestures, and invite the stares. It’s so contrary to how my gut feels.
So how did I manage to win a few trophies in various speech competitions? And why would I subject myself to such scrutinising misery by entering into such competitions?
When I was in secondary school, I was your typical overachiever. And I wanted so desperately to get into uni on a full scholarship. It was either that, or not go to uni because I couldn’t afford it. So I signed up for a lot of extracurricular activities just so that I can put it on my uni application.
The Speech Team (part of the US National Speech and Debate Association) was one of those activities. But I soon realised just how terrible I was at public speaking. I would marvel in awe at the pros and tournament champions on the team. Yet each of them told me they were just like me when they started.
I also realised that the members on the team went on to not only attend good universities, but also had very successful lives and careers. Some become lawyers, doctors, and professors. One became a Supreme Court of California Justice. And another was the Chief Deputy Press Secretary of former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet every single one of them was a minority (Asian or Latino) with a low-to-middle class background.
So I stuck with it. I practiced often, and I failed often. (I’m glad this was a time before recording videos was easy.) And I met a lot of people and learned from them.
A Good Place to Get Started: A Toastmaster Club
If you’re not a student, then it’s hard to join a speech or debate team. For adults, a good place to start learning and practicing public speaking is at a Toastmasters Club. Toastmasters Clubs are part of Toastmasters International (TI). TI is a nonprofit educational organisation that aims to help members improve their communication, public speaking, and leadership skills.
Currently in Singapore, there are 245 Toastmasters Clubs. So chances are, there’s one near your home or office.
The members typically meet once or twice a month, depending on which club they belong to. Some clubs, such as Toastmasters Club of Singapore, meet nearly every week.
The meetings are usually 2.5 to 3 hours long. They include a session where members deliver prepared speeches (typically without notes); a session of peer evaluations on those speeches; a session of impromptu speaking in which the audience participates; and a networking session.
The prepared speeches follow a curriculum, but it is self-directed. The most basic curriculum is called Competent Communicator, and consists of 10 project speeches. Each project will focus on a different theme and technique. You can view a summary of these projects here.
As members advance through the projects, they will also develop and strengthen their poise, confidence, and communication skills. They will also give/get feedback to/from other members. This curriculum of experiential learning has been very effective, and has changed very little since TI’s inception nearly a century ago.
How Much Does it Cost to Join Toastmasters?
All international clubs will pay dues of US$45 per member to TI, every six months. But these are just the club dues to TI. In Singapore, many clubs have additional expenses, such as the venue rental. Some clubs will even provide dinner or refreshments to their members. And the more often these clubs meet, the higher the expenses.
For example, the Toastmasters Club of Singapore meet more often than most other clubs. Their membership fee also covers the weekly rental for the function room at Sheraton Towers Hotel and for the accompanying dinner.
Because of these additional expenses, club fees in Singapore range from S$200 to S$480 per year. The cheapest membership dues I’ve seen is S$180 per year. (There might be one that’s cheaper that I’m unaware of.)
But you don’t have to join right away. Most people will visit clubs on a trial basis before making the commitment to a single club. I’ve known some people who have visited over 20 clubs (throughout the year) before joining as a paying member. Similarly, you can try out and attend a few club meetings as a visitor. Most of them are open and free for visitors. You can find a list of clubs here.
Alternatives to Toastmasters
As a former Toastmasters member, with a Speech Team background, I know there are quite a few gaps in Toastmasters. For example, Toastmasters focuses more on delivering speeches in front of audiences. It is an entirely different set of skills than communicating one-on-one in an exchange, such as in counselling. It is also a different skill set than acting, improv, or stand-up comedy.
So the Toastsmasters learning style, structure, and curriculum is not for everyone. And each club, like any organisation, also has a certain culture. Some clubs are more competitive than others. Some clubs have members who dominate the meetings. So finding a club that’s right for you can be challenging. And you may not even like the style of the meetings.
But there are other options besides Toastmasters. You can simply take classes on public speaking. There are plenty of online courses, but to get the full benefit, I think face-to-face interaction/instruction is better. The Singapore Media Academy (owned by MediaCorp) offers such training courses. Another one is Speech Academy Asia.
You can also join a drama club, poetry club, public speaking club, or improv club. You can find meetups of such groups, or even form your own on Meetup.com.
At uni, I didn’t major in communication. And I was only a so-so student. But I graduated 8th place in the entire College of Engineering. Looking back, I think a lot of it had to do with my communication skills, and not my technical skills.
And those communication skills were not attained at uni.
At the Singapore Youth Conference (7 April 2018), Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung discussed the importance of ITE and alternative education pathways. In a Q&A session, he commented on how future job-seekers will be more interested in what skills you have, rather than on previous job titles or which schools you attended. Indeed a shift toward competency-based education is already happening. And mastering skills and competencies is become more and more important in this age of disruption.
Communication skills are especially important because as an employee, you need to “sell” yourself, your skills, and your ideas. And employers want people who know how to work in teams, improvise, think critically and systematically, and clearly communicate and deliver projects. They want people who aren’t afraid to build relationships, mentor and share knowledge to those who are below, or present or pitch ideas to those above.
To an employer, good communication skills can set you apart from your peers.
It’s a skill that will take a very long time to master but you’ll start reaping the benefits once you begin this journey. In all my years on the Speech Team and in Toastmasters, I really can’t say that I’ve mastered it. I still get very nervous on stage. And I still fail.
But what I can say is that it made a huge difference in my career and in my personal life. And I’ve made many friends along the way. These clubs are a great way to grow your network, which is another fundamental skill to have in this age of disruption.