Mo Waja developed PictureWords to help students develop public speaking skills. (Courtesy Harpreet Sandhu)

Mo Waja developed PictureWords to help students develop public speaking skills. (Courtesy Harpreet Sandhu)

Fear is usually the first thing that comes to mind when you think about public speaking, but one Ryerson business management student is trying to change that.

Fifth-year business law student Mo Waja has developed a four-week presentation coaching program, PictureWords, to combat those anxieties.

“Public speaking is among one of the biggest fears, even sometimes above death,” Waja says. “Yet we communicate with each other every day.”

Waja has dedicated the past school year to developing a program that explores the source of why people are afraid of public speaking.

The PictureWords program is an extension of the Ryerson Speech and Debate Association, a student group Waja formed in September 2013. The group has two focuses: a competitive debate team and the public speaking program. Since October, PictureWords has taught 85 students from Ryerson to overcome the fear of public speaking through practical solutions.

“PictureWords doesn’t just tell individuals to stand up straight or make eye contact,” he says.

“It breaks down exactly what students should do to achieve better presentation. We show you exactly how to stand, exactly how to position yourself and (how to) make eye contact.”

Waja is currently the sole facilitator of PictureWords, but is currently training other Ryerson business students to take over when he graduates this semester.

The class size is capped at fewer than 10, and students deliver at least three speeches per session. Waja says that these aspects set his free program apart from larger, more recognized classes – like Toastmasters. Waja, however, has never gone through a Toastmasters program or a similar presentation-coaching course.

Waja says the program doesn’t guarantee that participants will become an expert speaker by its completion. Instead, PictureWords acts as a “launching pad” for individuals to conquer their public speaking fears.

The Ryerson student has had many years of debate and public speaking experience and no formal teaching from a speech coach. But he wasn’t always this confident.

“I didn’t start out as a great speaker. In fact, I used to be the guy who couldn’t stand in front of a crowd,” he said. “I used to have a lisp and would mumble all the time.”

Fast forward a few years to university and Waja has come a long way in his presentation skills. He won Ryerson’s Next Top Speaker, an annual competition put on by Ryerson Toastmasters, in 2012. He’s also won the “Top Speaker” award and was placed in the top two as a part of Ryerson’s Jeux du Commerce (JDC) Central debate team – a business competition that brings together academics, debate, sports and networking.

Waja uses his personal experience – from fear to success – within the PictureWords program.

He has even completed a textbook, the PictureWords Playbook, due to the program’s popularity. The textbook takes a deeper look at topics covered in the course. The idea is that readers get a similar experience reading the book and self-teaching if they aren’t able to attend the four-week course.

“Textbooks tend to be more traditional and focus on theory, which is informative but dry,” Waja says. “The Playbook takes an informal approach. It’s written in a conversational style.”

Waja is launching his own business, PictureWords Professional Development, due to the success of the program.  His business will focus on coaching professionals in public speaking and business pitching.

“A major complaint I hear from employers and employees is poor speaking skills,” he says. “You can have a lot of technical knowledge, but if you aren’t able to communicate it’s not as effective.”

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 12, 2014.

Sam graduated from the Ryerson School of Journalism in 2014.