- The ToastmastersWorld Championship of Public Speaking was held in Chicago last week, and Ramona Smith, a high-school teacher from Houston, won.
- Smith told Business Insider the various ways she’s improved her skills since she first began public speaking in 2014.
- Her biggest improvements were learning how to talk slower, ask the audience questions, and move fearlessly across the stage.
Ramona Smith, a 31-year-old high-school teacher from Houston, won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking last week, beating out 30,000 other speakers from around the world in the six-month competition.
Smith is a relative newcomer to the public speaking scene. She joined her local Toastmasters club in 2014, and never before reached the semi-finals of the yearly competition, when the top 100 speakers are invited to deliver speeches at the annual Toastmasters convention, held in Chicago this year.
But Smith refined her skills over the course of four short years, leading to her rapid ascent.
In an interview with Business Insider, Smith explained the ways she’s improved her delivery, and it’s great advice for anyone trying to work on their public speaking skills.
She learned how to use movement to her advantage
One of the biggest improvements Smith said she’s made was in her movements.
“I used to pace for no reason,” Smith told Business Insider. “My movements weren’t on purpose. I didn’t have intentional movement.”
“But I learned that you need to move with each point. So plant your feet, say what you have to say, move on to your next point.”
On the championship stage, Smith used movement to strategically reinforce the theme of her winning speech.
Titled “Still Standing,” Smith’s speech used the metaphor of a boxing match to explore how she overcame adversity at three points of her life – dropping out of college, divorcing her husband, and failing on the speaking circuit. Each moment was another “round” in the boxing match, and Smith walked to a different area of the stage to introduce each one. She later returned to the same spots on the stage to discuss how each moment had impacted her life.
“That brought it full circle,” Smith told Business Insider. “I think that’s kind of what tied it all together.”
She stopped caring if she looked silly
Throughout her seven-minute speech, Smith assumed the role of a boxer – she shimmied across the stage, threw jabs, hooks, and crosses at her imaginary opponent, and even mimicked getting punched in the face to drive home the pain she felt throughout her life.
At an earlier point in her career, Smith would have been scared to commit to the role. But remembering a lesson from acting classes she took years ago helped her overcome her fear.
“My acting coach would tell me, ‘Stop being afraid to look stupid,'” she told Business Insider. “I would hold back so much, because I was afraid people would laugh at me or that I would look stupid.”
“When I got on the stage, I said, you know what? I’m just going to do whatever feels good. I’m going to do whatever feels right. I’m not going to care about what happens.”
Her commitment allowed her audience to become absorbed in the speech, and helped them relate to her, she said.
“Just that free body language and not being afraid to look silly and just kind of let loose, I think that helped, because it’s like, ‘Oh, well, she’s this professional speaker on this stage, but she still has this human side.'”
She gave her audience a chance to react
Another big change Smith said she’s made over the years was learning to ask her audience questions and pausing long enough for them to think of an answer.
One of Smith’s old speaking coaches recommended she ask an open-ended question to her audience once every minute or minute and a half to keep them engaged.
In Smith’s seven-minute speech, she asked questions like “Can you think of a time that life tried to knock you down?” and “Who was your toughest opponent?” – pausing after each one.
“Those pregnant pauses are so important,” Smith told Business Insider. “I really look at them like I’m waiting for an answer.”
She focused on slowing down
The last and perhaps most important area of improvement for Smith was learning how to talk slower.
A naturally fast talker, Smith said her speed was the biggest concern for the judges who evaluated her in the weeks leading up the Toastmasters competition. Making a conscious effort to talk slower, even if it meant cutting content from her speech to stay within the seven-minute time limit, took her speaking to the next level.
That adjustment was critical on the international stage, where many of the competitors and audience members speak English as a second language, she said.
“If I say something too fast, it’s going to sound like something else to them,” she said. “So being able to slow down and enunciate – I have to practice that and be more aware and cognisant of that when I’m giving these speeches.”
Watch Smith’s winning speech below:
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