Rewind 11 years. No way would I stand in front of my peers to give a speech. About any topic. On purpose. With people watching.
I didn’t even like raising my hand to answer questions in meetings. When my peers spoke, they conveyed their focused thoughts eloquently. I noticed how quickly they made their points. When my turn came, I stammered about 10 “ums” per sentence. If I did make my point, it took way longer than it should have.
Over the years, I noticed myself being passed over for promotions. If I had any composure, it vanished the moment I scheduled an interview. The confident professional who wanted to communicate was replaced with some stuttering ninny in a pantsuit. If the words “public speaking required” appeared in the announcement, I wouldn’t even apply.
I wanted to improve, but I didn’t know how.
Then, one random workday in 2004, I whined to my coworker Bill Krouse about my plight. My complaint probably dragged on pointlessly, longer than it should have.
“You really need to try Toastmasters. It’s a safe environment for you to practice your speaking skills,” Krouse said. “Could help you interview better.”
My workplace sponsored a weekly Toastmasters club meeting. Krouse was (and is) Toastmasters’ unofficial chief recruiter.
“Sounds like a lot of work.” The truth? I was frightened to change.
“It’s all self-paced,” he insisted. “You get out of it what you put into it.”
I tossed my hair. “I’m too busy.”
Then I had a talk with myself. That same week, I skipped lunch to attend my first Toastmasters meeting. For me, that’s a trade-off akin to cutting off a toe. Unlike most meetings, Toastmasters had an atmosphere as warm as the grilled cheese and tomato soup I would have eaten.
My first meeting was the most organized meeting I had ever attended. The facilitator distributed agendas and used Robert’s Rules to structure the meeting. Every member filled a defined role. Just like at work, some people wore multiple hats.
Each role had a real-world application. For example, the Jokemaster, um, well, told a joke. I could think of at least four close friends who needed help telling a joke. The Grammarian took note of grammatical errors and corrected them. The Timer timed each speaker, giving traffic light signals to let them know when they were dragging on pointlessly. I wanted to invite these people to my workplace meetings. (My husband wanted to invite them for dinner.)
During the meeting, a speaker gave a prepared interpretive reading. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
I couldn’t imagine how the speaker could have improved his performance. Then the evaluator listed several improvements in the form of an ad-hoc speech. The speaker swayed. I hadn’t even noticed. Distracting hand gestures also escaped my attention. Mouth-smacking noises rounded out the list.
My listening and observation skills smacked of lousy.
“Feedback is how we learn and grow. We’re not just a club—we’re family,” said Linda Dean, public relations officer for Toastmasters. “Who better to grow up with than your family?”
Everyone is welcome—during and after each meeting—to offer written and verbal feedback to any meeting attendee.
Soon after that meeting, I started working on basic skills, like gestures, eye contact, vocal variety. The nerd in me couldn’t help it. I peeked ahead to the back of the manual.
“Give a technical speech. Speak to inspire. Persuade an audience to your point of view.”
At the very back, 17 advanced manuals covered specialty communications situations. Radio and TV, storytelling, facilitating meetings were just a few. Gulp. There wasn’t a communications scenario left uncovered.
Organize and Express
The projects start off easy and eventually become more complex. Most members work simultaneously through two structured tracks: communication and leadership.
Mel Collins, president of Agile Consulting and current Toastmasters officer, said, “I joined because I wanted to effectively lead and present meaningful information to my staff and co-workers.”
Clubs meet a few times per month. Some are corporate and professional. It’s all networking and handshaking. Others are social. That just means the business meeting includes coffee, chicken and the occasional baby.
“My 18 years in Toastmasters have earned me glowing comments in my performance evaluations,” member Bill Zdankiewicz said. “I was also able to present the eulogy at my father’s funeral without embarrassing myself or his memory. And I had the experience and resources to deliver a roast-toast at my mother’s surprise 80th birthday party—one that she could laugh at and be proud of.”
For every milestone you achieve, Toastmasters will send your employer a letter of praise. Managers often attend with their employees or build Toastmasters into their training development plans. Corporate clubs often pay for their employees’ memberships. Even if you’re paying your own dues, it’s only $36 for six months.
Member Dave Smith may have retired from work, but he didn’t stop improving himself.
“As a ‘returning’ college student, my English professor told me I had a book inside me,” he said. “I was the first black chief recruiter for Navy recruiting in Harrisburg. Plus, I served aboard naval submarines under very prejudicial conditions. Toastmasters is helping me organize and express my stories.”
With 14,650 clubs in 126 countries, Toastmasters has helped 4 million people since 1924. I signed up to become a better interviewee. Completing the curriculum gave me much more.
Ten years ago, I faltered through my first speech, said “um” about 87 times, and soaked my pantsuit with various sweat rings. Now, I can stand confidently, use a microphone and keep my pantsuit mostly dry. Do I still get nervous before interviews and speeches? Sure, but now it’s not an ordeal. Through Toastmasters, I grew professionally and socially.
I taught a session on how to deliver effective evaluations last year. One of my mentors offered me feedback. “You flip your hair a lot. It’s distracting. And could you wear a dress once in a while?”
Always room to grow.
To begin your Toastmasters journey, visit www.toastmasters.org. Enter your zip code and find a club you like.