Chef panelists speaking to students at ICE

Public Speaking for Restaurant Professionals

Chefs, managers and owners alike can benefit professionally with comfortability speaking to groups.

Chefs Jameeale Arzeno, Michael Jenkins, Adrienne Cheatham, Michael Garrett and Kwame Williams (Culinary, '07) speak to students at ICE.

The ability to speak well publicly comes into play often in the restaurant industry. Restaurant managers and owners need to represent the venue and often the company anywhere from a community board meeting, public hearing or vendor meeting, to company-wide meetings or a meeting with a team. Speaking comfortably and confidently with conviction, passion and integrity will go a long way toward achieving company and personal professional goals.

It’s hard to be a leader in any business without being able to speak well in groups. Better public speakers tend to become leaders more easily and rise through the ranks of organizations quicker. It’s really hard to communicate your points or goals to your teams, venues, company, investors and others without a comfort with public speaking.

Rick Camac
Dean of Restaurant & Hospitality Management Rick Camac

Early on in my career as a restaurateur, I found myself having to speak in front of groups that eventually were in the thousands. Public speaking did not come naturally to me, nor do I believe it does to most of us, and I was forced to confront my issues head-on. Learning how to speak in public should be part of every college or vocational school curriculum. I believe it to be one of the most important things we can learn. And, as is the case with most things, it takes practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets.

All things being equal, if two candidates are in contention for a job or a promotion, the one that is comfortable speaking in front of people will likely get the nod. Good public speakers come off with more confidence, and seemingly, more knowledge. By no means does this mean we all need to run for office or aspire to speak in front of thousands or millions. But being comfortable with speaking in front of 10-20 people will likely come up many times in your business career and even your personal life.

In Restaurant & Culinary Management classes at ICE, I have students start off with easy subjects for a few minutes, and by the time they are ready to graduate, they are comfortable speaking in front of the class for 20-30 minutes.

As with many other interpersonal skills, I think most people have become more comfortable with communicating in other ways, from phone calls to emails and then texts. We all know people that would do anything not to have to communicate directly with anyone. Now, during the pandemic, we have Zoom. The less we have to get in front of others, the less comfortable many of us will be doing so (and the more we’ll resort to other forms of communication).

Chef and restaurateur Susan Feniger speaks to ICE students
Chef and restaurateur Susan Feniger speaks to ICE students.

Here are the tips that have helped me to this day.

1. Practice. If you’re comfortable speaking to one, practice speaking to three. Use family and friends. Talk about topics that you are 100% comfortable with. Talk about your dog or favorite color. Keep growing until the group is a little bigger and the subject is a tad more unfamiliar.

2. Blanking out: That was my biggest fear. I’d forget what I was about to say. When that happens, just go back to the subject matter. Speak logically and forget your notes and what you tried to memorize. Trying to remember what you memorized is scarier than just speaking from what you know. Try just leaving yourself a few key points to speak to. Start with the subject matter you know well.

3. Knowledge is power. This is never more true than with speaking. Get to know your material as well as you can. Having knowledge to offer gives you confidence. Know that you have something valuable to say. Before I get in front of a large group, I tell myself I have something to convey that people want to hear. I tell myself that I know more about the subject than anyone in the room. It may not be true, but it gives me confidence.

4. Do not memorize anything. Then there’s nothing to forget. Know the material well and give yourself bullet points to speak from. Memorization works well for some and is paralyzing for others. That said, do practice your speech often — just don’t try to memorize every word.

5. There's no need to fear failure. An audience does not want you to fail. Most of the time, showing vulnerability goes a long way toward getting an audience on your side.

6. Make them laugh. Be self-deprecating. Get them on your side quickly. I usually say something humorous to start just about every speech I make. Get the audience to laugh and you've got them! This may be my best tip and it works well for me. I immediately relax once I get a group to react positively.

7. Be honest. Be heartfelt and try not to read from a script (that’s what trips many of us up). Be confident about knowing your subject matter and be yourself.

8. Get comfortable and start small. Once you’re comfortable speaking in front of 12 people, 50 is a breeze. It stops mattering.

9. Focus your attention. If it helps, take turns looking at one person in the audience and speak to them like it’s a one-on-one conversation. Then, after a minute or so, focus on another. And so on. After a while, you’ll stop doing that and then be able to scan the room as you speak.

10. Hint for online speaking: I don’t like to see myself on screen when I’m talking (I’m used to that now) so I used to turn my own video off when I spoke. Seeing myself speak made me self-conscious. Now, I don’t care. And, again, concentrate on talking to one person as if there’s no one else in the (virtual) room. Ultimately, you’ll get comfortable with looking up and scanning the room, without even realizing it.

Hear excerpts from our virtual guest speakers in 2020, and study more management skills in Restaurant & Culinary Management at ICE.

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