Toast into the New Year

If you know me, you probably are aware that I’m a bit soft-spoken and reserved at times (unless I’ve had a few stiff drinks). In 2011, I unsuccessfully enrolled in Toastmasters, hoping to improve my public speaking skills and do a bit of networking at the same time.

The group was, and likely still is, sponsored by my first employer, and I remember attending the first meeting. I walked into a silent, featureless conference room in our Back Bay office and watched as a series of business casual-clad speakers walked up to the podium to deliver their short spiels.

Suffice it to say, I met some very friendly and engaging people from my firm and enjoyed a number of the speeches. It was cordial. After attending only one or two meets, I decided to join and even got my booklet and official paperwork in the mail.

Then, I switched jobs.

For one reason or another, I never attended another Toastmasters meeting, until this year.

This summer, I discovered the ‘Speak Up Cambridge’ Toastmasters group on Meetup and, after some deliberation, decided I’d give it another shot.

I sent a friendly message to Lee, our club president, and he invited me to attend a session on a Wednesday evening after work. I headed over to Lesley University and, once again, walked into an unassuming, quiet room. Some folks were chatting and I took a seat at an empty table littered with strategically-placed printouts of the night’s agenda. People began streaming in and before I knew it, we were out of seats.

Lee was first to speak, and as he does every meeting, he gave a brief history of Toastmasters International and welcomed all guests and newcomers. As I’ve learned, Toastmasters is nearly a century old with over three hundred thousand members worldwide.

Twice per month, we meet at Lesley and often draw a crowd of twenty to thirty members and guests. Over the course of the two-hour meeting, we follow an organized series of ceremonies, led by various members in assigned roles.

Everyone gets a chance to speak, even if you’re new or just observing.

During my first visit, I learned about Table Topics, where a member chooses a theme and/or question of his or her choosing and selects guests and members at random to briefly talk about the subject matter.

I can recall, as the Table Topics presenter walked around the room, I casually avoided eye contact.

All of the sudden, I heard my name called.

“Paul, come on up!”

I was caught off guard, thinking that my night was to be spent quietly observing rather than participating.

I walked up and delivered my haphazard speech, which delved into the question, “Would you rather have seven sisters or seven brothers?”

Being an only child, I had to get a bit creative, but I was also glad that I had just started my improv classes around the same time that I explored Toastmasters, which provided a little boost of confidence. I was a bit nervous and stumbled a bit, but the time passed by quickly.

By the end of my speech, I breathed a sigh of relief. The crowd applauded, as they always do after every speech, and I had a seat, feeling a bit of a rush and also a sense of accomplishment.

I have been attending Speak up Cambridge consistently since June, and just this past week, I delivered my first prepared speech.

Leading up to this, I spent several meetings exploring the various roles to get used to the format and practice speaking through small, baby steps. Roles varied from night to night: I counted “ahs” and “ums,” acted as the timer, told a joke, did a brief rant about meetings, and introduced a couple of our segments, including “Word of the Day” and “Round Robin.”

By the time speech night arrived, I had been up to the front of the room a number of times, mostly in small doses. At that point, I had familiarized myself with many of the members and recurring guests and felt much more at ease in the room.

The first Toastmasters speech is called the Icebreaker, and as the name implies, simply acts as an introduction of the new member to the group. The speech should last four to six minutes and does not require any notes or specific format.

I spent a week or two preparing, writing down a rough outline in Evernote and practicing out loud. I also recorded myself (wow, I really do have a deep voice) and practiced getting the timing just right. Sounding like a Morgan Freeman monologue, it felt really odd to hear my own voice describing my life

The night of my speech finally arrived and as I walked up to the front of the room, I felt a little more relaxed than my first Table Topics talk, especially given that I knew the material at hand. Still, I had jitters.

I introduced myself and walked through my story, which revolved around my jack-of-alltrades approach to life and wrapped up in just over six minutes. Once again, a huge feeling of relief and exhilaration overcame me as the crowd applauded and I walked back to my seat.

My speech wasn’t perfect; I used a bunch of “filler words,” deviated from my rehearsed speech here and there, and maybe went a bit over the time limit, but I felt that I covered all of the topics that I had in mind. I tried to toss in some humor to keep my audience interested. My evaluator gave me a few pointers:

  • Vocal variety: try to use varying tempos, pauses, and high and low pitches to add variation and color to your speech
  • Hand gestures: use your hands a bit more and keep your hands above your waist

The Toastmasters ‘Competent Communication’ manual includes a series of ten speeches (including the Icebreaker).

Toastmasters-manuals-660x340

It guides new speakers through a range of different techniques, topics, and styles with increasing degrees of difficulty. While I’ve only completed one of ten, I plan on carrying on through 2018 and beyond.

Lee has always said in his meetings, “I’ve yet to hear a tenth speech that was nothing short of outstanding,” and, “Usually after about three to four speeches, you will notice drastic improvements. You can only get better.”

I believe that the system is working, and even though I’m just a beginner, I think that improvements will evolve with more practice as I work Toastmasters into my routine.

My takeaways

  • Most careers require at least some degree of delivering presentations, status reports, or selling your product or service. Toastmasters offers an opportune forum to practice these skills in a low-risk, non-judgmental environment.
  • You will be uncomfortable and anxious before your speeches. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One member had wisely said, “When I feel uncomfortable, I know that it’s a chance for me to grow and learn.”
  • Even if you’re nervous, you can benefit by following Fake it till you make it. Someone recently made the analogy, “It’s like watching a duck swimming on a pond: calm and relaxed above water, kicking like crazy underwater.”
  • The costs are low: dues are only $45 every six months with a $20 one-time signup fee
  • The group I meet with is exceptionally international and diverse. Even if you aren’t making speeches, you’ll hear some interesting stories and perspectives throughout the evening.
  • There’s pie at almost every meeting.

 

If you’re interested in attending or learning more, feel free to visit the group on Meetup:

https://www.meetup.com/Speak-Up-Cambridge/

 

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