The following post is an excerpt from Barbara’s forthcoming book, Commit to Confidence, due out in a couple of weeks.

Confident CommunicationLet me ask you a question. What can increase your self-confidence, make you feel incredibly powerful, offer an enormous degree of satisfaction, and advance your career all at the same time?  No, not hot yoga. No, not Red Bull. The answer is public speaking.

Sounds wonderful doesn’t it?  How many skill sets can offer as much return on investment? Yet many people shy away from speaking opportunities no matter how small. The resistance often comes from the “what if” syndrome:  What if I forget what I’m going to say?  What if I say something really stupid?  What if the audience doesn’t like me?  The what-ifs then diminish our tolerance for risk-taking and the result is we lose out on the rewards that could come with stepping onto center stage.

A recent survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that verbal communication was the #1 skill employers were looking for when screening job candidates. NACE is just one of several organizations that regularly polls employers on the skills and attributes they look for in qualified candidates. Verbal communication skills consistently rank near or at the top of each list. The option to take a detour around speaking in public is no longer in anyone’s best interest. Most career professionals find themselves having to sharpen their speaking and presentation skills to get ahead. And not just once, but many times over the course of their career.

If you decide that this is the year to bring your skills to the next level, or perhaps to get up in front of a group of people for the first time and wow them with your expertise, your ideas, or the product you are trying to sell, then the most important step you can take is to find low stakes opportunities to practice your communication skills. We are constantly offered chances to speak in public, but we don’t recognize them because they are dressed in the mundane camouflage of daily transactional tasks. Take a look at the top three low-stakes ways to practice your public speaking skills:

1. Running a meeting. Practice speaking in a succinct manner while introducing the agenda, the purpose of the meeting, and the ideal outcome you will achieve before everyone goes back to their desks. Three sentences, that when delivered in a clear and compelling manner, complete with eye contact and vocal variety, will make your co-workers wonder what just happened.

2. Ordering from a menu. How often do you hold up the ordering process because you don’t know what you want and have a hard time getting your order out? Have you ever found yourself in line at a Qdoba or Chipotle restaurant behind a sluggish and indecisive person?  It sounds like this:

Server:  “Do you want black or pinto beans?”  Guest:  “Ummmmm…pinto – No! black beans.”  Server:  “Pepper Jack or cheddar cheese?”  Guest:  “Ummmmmm, Pepp- no wait – chedd – no, umm, is there any other kind?”

And on it goes until finally the person’s burrito has reached the cashier. The next time you find yourself ordering from a menu or from a line server, narrow your focus and deliver a clear and concise order. By the way, you can do this at the drive-through as well.

3. Leaving a voicemail message. This is the best way to critique yourself. The next time you get someone’s voicemail greeting, leave your message and then press the * key or whichever prompt the voicemail program gives you to review your message. How did you do?  What can be improved? Once you have listened and made note of your less-than-stellar verbal or vocal habits, erase the message and try again. Voilà! Instant, real-world practice.

I hope you make this the year to take your skills to the next level. Your career will thank you.

I can be reached at Google+.

– Barbara

Barbara Roche