On Saturday, Ramona Smith was named the 2018 Toastmasters world champion of public speaking.
Smith, a 31-year-old high-school teacher from Houston, outlasted more than 30,000 other speakers from around the world over the six-month World Championship of Public Speaking competition, the largest of its kind. She and nine other finalists delivered speeches to a crowd of 2,000 in Chicago over the weekend during the annual Toastmasters International Convention.
Smith is just the second African-American woman and the fifth woman overall to win the public-speaking championship since it began in 1938.
Smith’s winning speech, titled “Still Standing,” explored how she found strength in the face of adversity throughout her life. You can watch the seven-minute speech below.
In an interview with Business Insider, Smith broke down the techniques she used in her speech and how they pushed her over the edge.
She chose a creative way to get through to her audience
The first step toward a good speech is finding the right way to convey information to your audience.
Smith’s speech used a metaphor that many people are familiar with — a boxing match — to describe various points in her life when she was knocked down but refused to give up, included her dropping out of college, her divorce, and her early failures on the public-speaking circuit.
“Pain and difficulty and adversity, those are things that everybody everywhere can deal with, whether you’re in America or Australia or Africa,” Smith told Business Insider. “We all experience times when we feel like life has knocked us down.”
She wasn’t afraid to look stupid
Smith was highly animated as she delivered her speech, balling her fists and crouching into a boxer’s stance to drive her points home, and punctuating them by mimicking the punches, jabs, and hooks of an actual fight.
Earlier in her career, she would have been afraid of committing to such a high-energy delivery, she said. But experience, as well as a few acting classes, taught her that there’s no use in holding back.
“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,'” she told Business Insider. “So I got up there, and I was shimmying my feet and acting like a boxer — in high heels, to boot.
“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 asked the audience questions — and meant it
Smith said one of her most important techniques was to ask the audience questions and give members enough time to actually formulate an answer.
“Can you think of a time that life tried to knock you down?” Smith said in her speech, stopping for a beat and looking out into the crowd. “Who was your toughest opponent?”
Asking questions draws the audience in and allows them to relate more to the speaker, Smith said.
“Those pregnant pauses are so important,” Smith told Business Insider. “I really look at them like I’m waiting for an answer.”
She learned from the greats
Smith has absorbed lessons from countless public speakers on the professional circuit and in her local Toastmasters club.
A piece of advice that has stuck out is one she learned fromDananjaya Hettiarachchi, a Sri Lankan entrepreneur who won the 2014 Toastmasters competition. Hettiarachchi recommends speakers open the palms of their hands to the audience to convey openness — something Smith did throughout her winning speech.
“It just makes the audience feel more connected, like I’m really open, I’m vulnerable, and I want to give you all of me,” she said. “And it makes me look relaxed and comfortable.”
But it takes more than just following others to become a champion.
“At the end of the day, you still have to put your own original spin on it and be bold enough to be yourself,” she said.
Originally published on Business Insider.
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