George Torok wrote one of his first speeches in high school, while running for president of the student council. He described it as "fabulous," "motivational" and "full of quotes and promises," but when it came time for him to take to the podium, he couldn't handle the pressure.
"I chickened out," he said. "I never delivered that speech."
Mr. Torok, who now works with executives from corporations such as Bombardier, Molson Coors and PricewaterhouseCoopers on how to improve their presentation skills, wasn't a natural-born public speaker. In fact, he had a cripping fear of it – a fear he had to overcome. Mr. Torok, like many business people, understood the benefits of strong public speaking skills for his career, so he did something about it.
In 1993, Mr. Torok joined Toastmasters, an international non-profit organization with 300,000 members and 13,500 chapters in 116 countries, who meet weekly to support and advise each other on how to deliver speeches and presentations.
Toastmasters, which began in the basement of a California YMCA in 1924, was founded to teach young men how to give after-dinner speeches in a social environment, explained Pat Johnson, former president of Toastmasters International. "That's how it got the name Toastmasters."
The organization's membership fees vary, but they typically fall between $10 and $20 a month. "It's a very positive, reinforcing environment," Mr. Torok said. "They teach you the fundamentals, so it's a good place to start."
After gaining some confidence, Mr. Torok wanted to take his presentation skills to the next level, so in 1997 he enrolled in an improvisational comedy course offered by Second City in downtown Toronto. "The improv does teach you to be more creative in your thinking," he said. "A business leader who takes improv can learn from the improv classes how to set the culture to allow that kind of creativity to happen."
While the average person probably thinks improvised comedy is simply fun and games, Chris Earle, a facilitator for Second City Communications, says the exercises may be amusing, but they are also designed to build practical skills for the workplace.
"We take them through a series of very simple exercises that focus on skills like listening, building on each other's ideas, brainstorming, and collaborating," Mr. Earle said. "With each exercise, there's a very specific takeaway about using these skills to improve the way that people collaborate and communicate in the workplace."
Second City Communications provides a variety of training courses ranging from a few hours to a few days, costing an average of $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the group size. Though many business leaders appear on the podium to be naturally strong speakers, many sought help to get over their fear of public speaking.
Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image, a Toronto-based digital marketing agency, said he delivers 40 to 60 presentations a year on a range of topics. He never considered himself a particularly strong public speaker, and he began attending Toastmasters and worked with a professional comedian to to hone his abilities.
As a result of his training, Mr. Joel has shared the stage with some of the of the most inspiring orators of our time, including Virgin Group's Richard Branson, author Malcolm Gladwell and former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Though Mr. Joel's job requires him to speak regularly, he argues that learning to tell an engaging story is a universal quality that can positively contribute to anyone's career.
"I think [improving your speaking skills] will help you get hired, and I think it will help you stay employable," Mr. Joel said. "You have to be competent, you have to be smart, you have to have a product or service that does what it says it does, but beyond that, all you have left as a competitive advantage is your ability to present that to someone else and have them believe in it."
Brian Scudamore, founder and chief executive officer of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, attributes the success of his brand, in part, to the compelling stories behind it. Unlike Mr. Joel, however, Mr. Scudamore never had any formal training in public speaking, and dropped out of Toastmasters after just a few classes.
"Toastmasters was something that was intimidating. While it's supposed to be a supportive environment and everybody's [equally as] scared of public speaking, everyone's presenting speeches and they're doing a pretty good job. You're the new guy, and you're still terrified," said Mr. Scudamore, who described himself as being "paralyzed by anxiety" at the time.
Instead of seeking any formal training, Mr. Scudamore got over his fear by confronting it head-on. "Just by diving right in off the deep end, I learned more than I did by ever going to any course," he said.
While Mr. Scudamore now approaches the podium with confidence almost monthly, he recognizes that his method isn't for everyone.
"When I'm faced with a problem, I find a creative solution to overcome it, and maybe the most creative for me was the hardest, but it proved to be the best solution," he said.
Whether skills are honed through a formal club, with the help of a presentation coach or just by jumping in, Mr. Scudamore says the measure of a good speech maker is the ability to tell a compelling story.
"We're in the storytelling age. Look at social media, look at how the world is being driven now, it's all about storytelling," he said. "I think storytelling is the No. 1 skill that any entrepreneur or anyone building a business needs to master."