The high-school teacher who beat 30,000 other people to become the world public speaking champion shares her best tip

ToastmastersRamona Smith won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking in August.
  • Toastmasters public speaking champion Ramona Smith has refined the art of the speech in the four years she’s been competing on the world stage.
  • The biggest improvement she’s made to her technique is learning to ask the audience questions and waiting long enough for people to actually think of an answer.
  • Smith’s winning speech included several questions to the audience, which she says helped the audience connect with her emotionally.

Ramona Smith, a 31-year-old teacher from Houston, beat 30,000 other people to become the Toastmasters world champion of public speaking last month.

Her victory at the Toastmasters annual convention in Chicago was the culmination of a four-year journey. Since first joining Toastmasters in 2014, Smith has refined the art of the speech, absorbing advice from public-speaking greats and improving everything from her body language to her enunciation.

But of all the things she’s learned over the years, there’s one piece of advice she says stands out above the rest, and it’s a technique anyone can add to their arsenal.

Smith learned to ask her audience questions – and mean it

Smith told Business Insider that what took her public speaking to the next level was learning to ask her audience questions and pausing long enough for them to think of an answer.

In her winning speech at the Toastmasters convention last month, Smith used the metaphor of a boxing match to describe hardships she’s faced in her life: dropping out of college, getting divorced, and failing on the public-speaking circuit.

Throughout the seven-minute speech, Smith kept her audience engaged by asking questions like “Can you think of a time that life tried to knock you down?” and “Who was your toughest opponent?”

But more importantly, Smith waited a beat after each question, letting her words resonate with members of the crowd. That was enough to draw the audience in and let them connect with her emotionally.

“Those pregnant pauses are so important,” Smith told Business Insider. “I really look at them like I’m waiting for an answer.”

“Pain and difficulty and adversity, those are things that everybody everywhere can deal with, whether you’re in America or Australia or Africa,” she said. “We all experience times when we feel like life has knocked us down.”

Smith said she picked up the tip from one of her old speaking coaches, who recommended asking the audience a question every minute or minute and a half – “if your speech is five to seven minutes long, you should have at least a few ‘you’ questions,” she said.

Improving one’s communication skills isn’t just important for public speakers. The lessons Smith has learned from her years on the Toastmasters circuit can apply to all types of situations, she said.

“It can help you in a job interview, it can help you as a coach when you’re talking to your players, it can help you in a marriage when you’re talking to your wife, any type of situation when you need to communicate with someone or with a group,” she said.

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