Years ago a friend of mine, an Event Coordinator with a professional organization was really excited about planning her very first event. She had a keynote speaker booked and was looking for a quality clinic speaker. She asked me to help locate someone qualified to fill this spot. I wasn’t able to find a speaker within the specified criteria and the given time frame but the positive outcome of this event was really important for my friend’s success. From our discussions, a crazy idea originated – what if I filled that spot myself. The entire thought of speaking in front of a professional audience (outside of work) sounded nerve-wracking. After some deliberation, I decided to give it a try. I selected a topic within the event theme, put together some slides and showed up at the venue all looking smart and telling myself I was ready to handle every possible thing that could come my way. As it turned out, one thing I was not prepared for – my larger than life portrait staring at me from the screen thoughtfully positioned there right next to my bio by my eager-to-succeed-future-Marketer friend. Seeing that there, instead of the expected low-key introduction, gave me cold feet, but it was too late to back out.
After making it through the event including the dreaded Q’s & A’s session, I had surprisingly many people come to me with encouraging feedback. One person stood out though. She approached me with a stern face and a curt statement: “I can tell you have never done Toastmasters”. I had no idea what it meant. Was it my eye contact, my hand gestures, my confidence or lack of thereof? I will never know what gave it away. Was I intimidated by this sudden revelation? Yes. Did I feel inspired to join Toastmasters? Not really. But the undoubting conviction in her tone and the lack of elaboration did spike my curiosity. Later on, the subject of Toastmasters has come up for me in several other contexts and I finally decided to join. Now, nearly a year after, here is what I want to share.
- Toastmasters will make a better speaker out of you. Join a club as a semi-professional or a complete beginner. Speak the Queen’s English or be an ESL student. Regardless of your level, you will improve. This is done by reinforcing your existing strengths and providing constructive feedback on your “points to grow” as they like to refer to your areas for improvement. You will learn that there is a lot more to public speaking than memorizing your speech and going note-free. There is voice variety, intricacies of natural body language, economic use of words, etc. For one thing, I discovered I was completely oblivious to how fast I spoke and how hard it was for others to keep up with me at times. You will understand the true meaning of how silence can be golden – through mastering the power of pauses. Other than learning from each other you’ll have access to larger scale events and higher caliper speakers you can learn from.
- It’s not one size fits all. Your Toastmasters experience can be geared towards your own goals. Once you finish your mandatory Competent Communicator manual, you get to choose from a variety of advanced manuals from humorous speeches and technical presentations to speeches by management. I chose the latter for improving my work-related communication skills. (There are also different themed clubs as well.) No matter what your topic is people in your club are always interested in what you have to share and are willing to be a part of it. Whatever you do, don’t thank your audience for their attention though. The mentality in Toastmasters is that the audience should be thanking you because your speech is your gift to them.
- Leadership skills. Toastmasters also focuses on improving a variety of other skills through its Competent Leadership curriculum. You will be assigned a mentor, to begin with and very soon will graduate into becoming one yourself. You will improve your ability to think on your feet, time and evaluate other people’s speeches, chair meetings and organize events among other skills. If you are interested in further advancing your hands on leadership skills there are opportunities to become a club officer or pursue district leadership roles as well.
- Stepping out of your comfort zone. Going in I had things I felt comfortable about and those that I didn’t. And then there was my natural tendency to wait until I learned something to perfection before getting my feet wet while the best way to learn is actually through experience. I am glad that in Toastmasters they gently push you out of your comfort zone to do things even before you feel fully ready for them. At times I felt that my fellow toastmasters believed in my abilities more than I did. Their support and enthusiasm definitely brought out the best in me.
- Have fun and make friends. I joined Toastmasters for all of the above reasons and had no idea how much fun it would be. Also, just when you thought you’ve accumulated enough good friends through your earlier years and aren’t looking for any more at this stage, turns out you are not done yet. Being surrounded by quality people you will find the like-minded ones to forge new friendships with. Or they’ll find you.
The last, bonus point: there is a lot of applause and handshakes going around in Toastmasters. I can’t speak for other clubs, but the one I am a part of also gives out awards. And yes, the above collection of ribbons is what I have earned so far. Sorry for bragging but it’s worth it.