Public speaking reflection

I’ve continued with public speaking conquests on two fronts: in the digital medium of a virtual Toastmasters club, and in the physical medium of my locally organized club.

In the virtual TM club, we meet on a weekly basis over the Zoom meetup software, proceeding in a manner similar to a physical Toastmasters charter. The fundamental difference lies in the presentation context. Rather than being engaged in a live setting, we see each other in a gallery of video feeds. In terms of body language, we practice not the entire body movement characteristic of a stage presentation, but the upper body portion fitting to the video feed, characteristic more of YouTube.

The virtual medium simplifies most of the logistics and communication, as I’ve previously written. The active speaker is usually spotlighted and appears in a larger window, which occurs either automatically per Zoom speaker detection, or manually by intervention of a ‘Zoom master’, a role dedicated to one of the TM participants. It is critical that this transition and speaker spotlighting properly occur, TM being entirely role oriented.

In terms of my participation, I have experimented almost every possible role between this virtual format and my previous physical charter experience. I’ve delivered prepared presentations, served as a speech evaluator, an overall general session evaluator, a table topics (improvised speech) session organizer, a grammarian, an ah-counter (providing a filler sound/word assessment at the meeting end), a body-language monitor (specific to this virtual club), and recently the Toastmaster, who leads the current session and facilitates the transitions, similar to a comedy open-mic host.

Some, myself included, present in a seated manner, making hardly any adjustment from the natural Zoom participating stance. Some stand up, distance themselves from the camera feed even, to provide a greater scale camera impact. Other presentations involve additional content that requires sharing a window, such as a set of slides. A small subset of participants, normally among the guests rather than the members, preside in a strictly audio feed. This, by the way, enables another medium to develop. I’ve experienced haunting, audio-book style deliveries in this fashion.

All in all I find it an entertaining experience, but not without a mention of critique, beyond that inherent to the format. Provided that everyone has access to the chat, and is expected to, the social-network-epidemic effect ensues. Rather than focusing on the active video feed, attention constantly transitions back and forth to the actively populated chat window. It’s notoriously distracting. However, I have yet to try disabling the chat window during the active presentations, which might partially mitigate the effect. For most roles, I don’t expect a too urgent of a chat inquiry to warrant nonstop monitoring.

A recurring preoccupation of mine concerns the stability of the internet connection. As I switch residences on practically a monthly basis, the network quality sees much volatility. Once in a while my WiFi link may reset, or come to a temporary halt, which has many an occasion interrupted my meeting connection, albeit mostly for a brief 10-30 second period. How this instability has not (yet) interrupted my deliveries, I am amazed.

The local physical club is a different matter entirely. It’s a relaxed environment I organize in Curitiba on a weekly basis, with emphasis on presentation practice, informal evaluations, and some improvising. I run this in Portuguese, although we occasionally experience English-language content. It draws a smaller audience of typically a few participants (compared to the virtual TM of 10-15, or my previous physical TM of 15-40). This is perfectly fine by me as it enables all of us the space and time to practice some delivery.

Does everyone actually deliver? Not necessarily. In the announcement, I encourage prepared content, but hardly anyone arrives with such. I present something on a weekly basis, but compared to the initial renditions of the club, where I would somewhat diligently rehearse, I’ve severely digressed. I now developed a habit of having a barely cohesive outline that I sometimes conceptualize on the walk to the club, often lacking a strong conclusion (if any), an introduction written already at the club prior to the start, and then executing a nearly improvised speech. While this lazy approach also caters to a certain type of ability, in my case, I simply stopped prioritizing rehearsal time and meticulous brainstorming, leaving this mostly for the Toastmaster format.

Another aspect I severely relaxed is the meetup space. Initially, I placed severe emphasis on having a proper environment - semi-private, relatively quiet. It first took place at the small library of my residential building. Then it transitioned to a caf√©. Then the free bar area of a coworking space. The next session takes place at yet another cafe. If not for the consistent Curitiba rain, I would soon transition to organizing this in a park. Be it quiet, somewhat disturbing, private, crowded, seated, standing, I don’t much care for the time being, not until the attendance reaches a certain number to warrant such consideration.

Overall I find this minimally organized relaxed setting fun, and a decent contrast to the rigid Toastmasters structure. It also compensates where my specific TM lacks.

Have I improved my presentation performance since I initiated with Toastmasters six months ago? Or how about since I conducted a series of recorded improvisations nearly a year ago? Certainly, I’m inclined to say, although the progress is difficult to measure in narrow intervals between successive meetings.

Based on general critique, my hand gestures, while not entirely dormant as I once preferred, are quiet fitting to the content, and not exaggerated as the liability they were a mere two years back. The overall posture, physically or virtually, transmits confidence, showing few signs of anxiety, a notable improvement, considering the dismal level I found myself at just 11 months back. The eye contact has mostly been strong, except in those moments of difficult improvisations, which are recurring enough to warrant attention. I sometimes move my head too much, as I’ve recently learned, but this shouldn’t be too challenging to remedy. I use few filler words and quiet enjoy spaces and silences.

However, the spaces are not necessarily a product of strategic placement. With English language content, I frequently overcomplicate word usage and lose track of overall delivery, which shows, especially in those improvisations. For this reason, I prefer to speak in Portuguese, despite the purely technical inferiority.

My greatest liability, the vocal modulation, will probably demand the longest time to improve. Now, for some technical content, vocal modulation has not been much of a distraction. However, it could prove a tremendous asset in the more inspirational speeches.