Toastmasters – So Much More Than Giving Speeches

Along my writing journey, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can — whether about the craft, the business or now, speaking. When my beloved book is published and I set it free out into the world, I want people to read it – hopefully many : )  Speaking is one way to market your book.

I’m a gregarious person so communicating with people has never been a problem. Speaking to people in front of a room — looking out into a sea of open (hopefully) eyes staring back at me, is.

After all, I spend most of my time writing my book Blasted from Complacency, my blog, a monthly article for Publishers and Writers of Orange County, the list goes on…and now speeches. But to write, I’m cloistered by myself, armed with my heart, my feelings and my imagination frolicking in the playground of my mind. The thought of choosing my weapon – solely my voice, hand-held or wireless microphone, is intimidating.

About six months ago I joined Toastmasters and gave my fourth speech this past week. At this point I’ve realized writing for speeches is still another nuance different from authoring a book, or a blog. In 5-7 minutes – the time allotted for most Toastmaster speeches, you have to get your point across dramatically and with each turn of a phrase, leave your listeners hungering for more. By the end, hopefully you’ve tickled their interest enough, that after they’ve gone home the taste of your flavorful words still lingers.

Clubs give off different vibes. Initially I was surprised to find out ours has a core membership of Toastmasters International employees. The Ace of Clubs was a new, open club, so some of us community members have infiltrated. It’s created a blended synergy of young, vibrant energy, intermingled with members with years of life experience to share. We just celebrated our first anniversary : ) The members are fun-loving, positive and kind. From what I’ve learned, being supportive is the backbone of Toastmaster clubs.

I’ve begun to think of my Toastmaster’s club as a safe laboratory to experiment with what works, or not.

Before giving my speech, I bemoaned why I chose a subject fraught with emotional landmines. Someday, I hoped this would be the beginning of an inspirational speech. What if they don’t like it – are my future plans ruined?  I thought to myself – I need to know. This was a soft place to fall, right?  Besides, I have plenty of time to adjust, regroup and practice more.

As I began…I never thought I’d be in a war – let alone while on a family vacation.  The tour itinerary and travel brochure didn’t mention bomb shelters, or hint we’d be cowering in them. Too late to demand a refund. The missiles exploded just near enough – to blow apart my world as I knew it.  Yet being a human target, triggered one of THE most positive changes in my whole life. In tonight’s speech we’ll discuss what that is, and why you should search for yours’ too…

6 ½ minutes later, as the sweat dripped down my armpits and I hoped it wasn’t snaking visible patterns on the outside of my blouse, it was over. Phew! Then the applause, and I proudly won the Best Speaker award for the night. Granted there was only one other, but Yeah, me!  I was especially moved by my evaluator’s comments “The speech was nearly flawless…Easy to understand and very vivid…You’re a storyteller and I love hearing your speeches!” Those were comments demonstrating what went right.

Now, ways to improve. I feel much more secure about my writing, than presenting. I’ve learned in Toastmasters you have to be strong in both, to get your message across. Even the most profound message won’t be listened to, if the delivery sucks. I was grateful everyone encouraged me, and thought I had improved with each speech.

I got a couple dings for lack of movement and looking at the back of my props. I gave myself a partial pass on that one – as Maya Angelou often said, “If they knew better, they’d do better.”  It was my first time trying to use visual aids. I thought it would be good to have placards for two reasons — clarification of my points for the audience, and so I could cheat and put my speech on the back. I’m still afraid of forgetting my words and need coaching on strategies to avoid blanking out.

Good news and bad. The audience loved the cards, but knowing my speech was right there in front of me enticed me to look too often – like the temptation of seeing a muscled cutie at the beach. Oh well, I’m a married woman, but I’m not dead. As my mother would say, cheaters never prosper – it was too tempting. I won’t do that again.

The other problem with the cards was I propped them up on the lectern and that caused me to balance them with one hand, gesture with the other, and I couldn’t move away or they would fall. It felt like it required the physical feats of a circus act. Next time, I should ask for an easel. The point is that with time, and practice, practice, practice, I’ll get better. My intention is to someday become a professional speaker – worthy of the messages I’d like to share.

Another opportunity at Toastmasters I’ve taken advantage of has been to attend the last two Founder’s District conferences.  They are great opportunities to learn, see speech contests, network, begin to understand the Toastmasters’ culture, and have fun. I listened to Keynote speeches, saw an incredible speech competition, went to workshops and mingled.

Upon arriving, I was delighted to see my mentor’s smiling face. I have been blessed with not only a mentor to help me at the club level, but he also found me someone who can help me with my long-range goal to become an expert lecturer. We hadn’t spoken about going, but it didn’t surprise me that he was helping check people in. He’s always so positive, and kindly introduced me to people he knew, telling them that I am writing my book, opening the door for me to explain.

Toastmasters is a huge organization with more than 345,000 memberships. They have almost sixteen thousand clubs in 142 countries! There are clubs formed at work as well as clubs that are open for the public in communities around the world. Toastmasters International’s mission is: We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders – but it’s so much more.

It was interesting to hear the whys that led members to join. Some were drug to the meetings by their bosses. Others were self-improvement driven, and wanted help communicating better and to become leaders.

Several spoke of wanting to break free from being introverts – wanting to stick their toe out into the water without the fear of drowning. Have you ever seen people so scared they shake when it’s their turn to speak? That kind of courage inspires me.  These are the heroes I’ll keep in mind, next time I’m scared and want to flee from the room.

I met people who had been involved for years, some even 30 and 50.  This is primarily a volunteer organization, and it was impressive how hard they work.

But that’s not what makes people stay. What I heard repeated over and over was so many enjoyed helping other people. Seeing people grow was an aphrodisiac. Such strong friendships developed, the members were extended family. I saw hugs, kisses and love in the room for the deep friendships that had grown over time.

One of the many activities at Toastmasters are speech contests and I was able to see 10 of the top Founder’s District competitors speak vying for the semi–finals at the 2017 International Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia. The speech topics covered a wide range – some poignant, funny, courageous, heart wrenching, the impact mentors can have, and life-changing moments.

It was clear why the contestants had gotten this far. I amused myself, and marked my ballot during the competition. The official judges scrutinized the presenters from the value of their speech content, to their presentation skills. I prided myself on choosing the same winner : )

His story took us on a journey from his childhood when he was terrified to speak at all. He was befriended by a teacher who taught him that he had a super power, and by facing his fear, he was able to learn to fly. The small boy who wouldn’t speak, as an adult, had just won the speech contest – bravo! I also had been touched by teachers’ kindness in my life, and was happy to hear one being celebrated with the honor he deserved.

There even was a session teaching Latin ballroom dancing for an optional change of pace. The couple dancing next to me was a charming, rocket scientist who always had a smile on her face, enjoying the time spent with her husband. The turns in these dances were a web of knotted arms – thankfully my partner had some ballroom dance experience. I noted my own psychological maturation. In the past, I might have bristled at the thought of being led by a man – no need to fight for equal rights on this battlefield. Just relax and have fun.

I joined Toastmasters because I had something I wanted to learn to say, in the best way. Now that I know more about Toastmasters, I’m excited and wonder where this mysterious road will lead me. Will I learn to fly?

As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…