Afraid of public speaking? This AI can help

Just like a smart mirror for the rostrum, AI-powered apps are helping speakers get into shape.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

There's that old Seinfeld joke, the one about public speaking ranking higher than death on people's list of top fears. Seinfeld points out with characteristic deadpan that most funeral attendees would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy.

Was there a hint of the familiar in that Seinfeld joke? You're not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety affects 73% of people. Can AI help bring some comfort and ease in front of a crowd?

That's the premise of Yoodli, a free platform to help people improve their speaking skills without the pressure of an audience. The technology, developed at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, provides real-time analytics on the technical aspects of speaking, such as using filler words, pacing, volume variation, and more. 

"Building your speaking skills is like training a muscle," says Varun Puri, a co-founder at Yoodli. "The same way we warm up before athletic events, or calm our minds through meditation, we can train our bodies before we speak. At Yoodli, we think that speech preparation can be fun and stress-free. That's why we've built daily AI powered drills to help people improve their impromptu speaking and interview skills."

What's interesting here is how familiar applications like this have become in another aspect of self-improvement: fitness. Smart mirrors help users nail workout routines well away from the pressure of a packed gym or a high-intensity class, all while offering the benefits of an interactive coach. In other words, judgment can be checked at the door while you fumble through the fundamentals.

Yoodli isn't the only AI-powered public speaking program. An app called Orai similarly analyzes uploaded speeches with the aim of helping users pinpoint areas of improvement. 

The question is whether an app or digital program can effectively mitigate the terror some feel when called upon to give a speech as opposed to merely helping a user nail the mechanics. For those with physiological responses, such as shortness of breath, it may be difficult to transfer lessons learned on an app to a real-world scenario. Yoodli aims to ease that transition with interactivity, including a community-focused integration that allows users to share their practice speeches with colleagues for input. And good mechanics are certainly the cornerstone of any good speech, with confidence earned through practice and measured improvement going a long way. That's as true for newbies as it is for world-class speakers.

"Prepared speaking is my jam," says Ed Tate, a World Champion of Public Speaking. "However, I had not won our club's impromptu speaking contest (called 'table topics') in years. Ever since I started using Yoodli, I've won 'table topics' at my Toastmasters club three times in a row."

Yoodli has an advisory team that includes TEDx trainers, speech professors at leading universities, and other World Champions of Public Speaking. Investors include Madrona Venture Group, one of the early investors in Amazon, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Institute for Artificial Intelligence. It was developed by former engineers and product managers from Google, Facebook, and Apple.

It's free, and it's worth a shot if you're planning to get in front of a crowd anytime soon. 

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