Toastmasters International—How I Joined and Why I’m Staying
How I joined Toastmasters
I discovered Toastmasters entirely by accident. I was home for a few weeks, in-between contracts (which is something with which many contractors will have to become familiar, unfortunately). On this occasion, it was an interregnum which lasted far longer than ever before, placing my finances into a perilous situation. (Aside: I learnt a lot from this difficult period and over here I give concrete steps to contractors to avoid making the same mistakes I made.)
Meanwhile, I was spending far too much time getting into heated, heavy arguments on the Internet, especially over the theory of evolution, of which I am not a fan. Talking to, or arguing with people or on the Internet is dissatisfying in that they can simply walk away. Also, on many SJW-type platforms (I’m looking at you, Twitter) the platform’s administrators are only too willing to be on the side of effete moral weaklings and intellectual dwarves who can’t defend themselves without bursting into tears and running off to mummy like the millennial snowflakes they are. Eventually I tired of the rigged game and sought–without really understanding my own motives, perhaps–a captive audience.
I felt divorced from the world, cocooned, isolated and shut away. Becoming a member of a group of people who liked a chat was exactly what I felt I needed. I was unprepared for what I found. The website through which I discovered Northampton Speakers at Meetup.com had a dry description of the group: “We practice skills like presenting speeches, giving feedback and impromptu speaking, all in a friendly and supportive environment. We are open to all skill levels, from complete beginners to experienced speakers.”
That is accurate, yet misses the many wonderful advantages of being a member of this group. Here is my description, which I think more closely fits the aims, ambitions and benefits of being a member:
Northampton Speakers is a friendly group of public-speaking enthusiasts. We meet regularly to practise public speaking in a safe, nurturing environment. We practise until we are bold, comfortable, and able—and then we pass on our skills to others. Your journey to becoming a confident public speaker starts here. Northampton Speakers is a branch of the Toastmasters Club, an international association of public speakers, professional and amateur alike.
In the Meetup site, I somehow missed the ‘Toastmasters’ bit. I had never heard of the organisation and I’m glad of it, otherwise, I might not have gone to that first meeting. The public face of Toastmasters is necessarily more officious and ‘corporate’ than its reality. Of course, because membership includes the payment of fees, financial accountability becomes subject to law. The organisation perforce has all the accoutrements of a proper public association. In fact, however, Toastmasters more closely resembles a group of devotees. It is a band of people who voluntarily come together to achieve a common goal in a cordial and unthreatening environment.
Toastmasters International—Targeted Skills
Toastmasters, it turns out, is an organisation which gently trains and transforms you into an accomplished public speaker. After a while, you will approach public speaking with self-assurance, ability. Super importantly, it really doesn’t matter from where you begin your journey.
I can say–hand on heart–virtually anyone will benefit from joining Toastmasters if the goal is to improve their public speaking skills. There are several reasons for this, and future articles will address these. Here and now, though, I’d like to focus on (what I believe) is the overarching reason: Toastmasters is a ‘safe space’ for practising public speech. No one is going to laugh at anyone who is displaying nervousness. No one is going to find mistakes in grammar, elocution or pronunciation hilarious. No one will giggle at a faux pa. The atmosphere truly is one of, “We’re all in this together; everyone is here to learn.”
An example of where else you might meet this kind of respectful tolerance is on public roads, at least here in the UK. No matter how much one is in a hurry, student drivers seldom–if ever–attract blaring horns or curses from other drivers. The reason is simple: at one time or another, we’ve all been in the same boat.
It is the same with a Toastmasters meeting. Everyone remembers their first few speeches, when they trembled from head to foot like an aspen in the wind. Those memories make it super easy to empathise with those trembling willows, stammering through their maiden speech and wishing that the ground would swallow them up! Then, as the weeks and months pass, something wonderful slowly happens. Formerly shuddering speakers start to show confidence. He or she experiments with different styles of speech. Far quicker than you can imagine, new speakers put themselves forward for club roles and soon learn what they’re good at (people are always good at something). The transformation truly is astonishing.
Free speech in a safe environment
I’ve been banging on about how “safe” it is in a Toastmasters’ meeting. Does that mean that all speeches must be anodyne and inconsequential?
Not a bit. It is perfectly acceptable to broach sensitive subjects, just not controversial ones.
“What the heck Tayo,” I can almost hear you saying. “What’s the difference?”
Well, (to me) a sensitive speech is one which deals with a touchy subject—for instance—gay marriage. A controversial speech is one which deals with a touchy subject, but offensively. So, as a topic, “The pros and cons of gay marriage” is sensitive, but not controversial and I’m sure that the Toastmaster (sort of, the person who acts as a Master of Ceremonies during the meeting) will have a word with the speaker beforehand to ensure that the speaker will approach the subject in a careful and respectful way. Furthermore, it is likely to be acceptable from someone who’s been a member for a while and has built a relationship of trust with the group. The Toastmaster might ask a newbie to choose another subject. I would expect this sort of circumspection to last until a newbie reveals an ability to give a delicate speech in an inoffensive manner.
If “The pros and cons of gay marriage” is a sensitive subject, “Why I think gay marriage is pure lunacy” will get short shrift; that’s definitely a controversial topic! For me, the takeaway is that a balanced “pros and cons” type of presentation always will be acceptable; a “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” attitude always will be unacceptable. That said, I have been a member for several months now and I remember being presented with only the one sensitive speech. I don’t think it is because my fellow members are avoiding such topics. I think it is because we are all trying to gain certain skills. For instance, mastering body language, or modulation of the voice, or the use of idiomatic and charismatic expressions. There are tons of little things which go into giving a brilliant speech, and of course, practice makes perfect. Why add to all that the stress of navigating through a sensitive speech?
My first attendance at Northampton Speakers was a nerve-wracking affair. I hadn’t expected to be called upon to speak, thinking such meetings make much ado about ceremony. Not a bit. The Toastmaster for the evening suddenly pointed to me and said, “Please introduce yourself”, instantly bringing me out from the comfort zone of anonymity. If I thought I looked like a rabbit caught in headlights, you should have seen one young woman who looked like she’d just been sentenced to death! Bug-eyed and with a shaking voice, she managed a whimper or two. Four months later, she has volunteered to take up an official post which will involve frequently being front and centre of attention! Absolutely amazing.
Apart from having to introduce myself, the Toastmaster quietly challenged me to give a two-minute ‘table topic’–an impromptu speech on a subject someone more-or-less dreams up on the spot. I heard a voice accepting the challenge and was surprised to discover that the voice was mine! It is supremely disconcerting to go somewhere expecting entertainment, only to find suddenly that everyone is looking at you, and you’re the one who’s meant to say something coherent and interesting.
I’m told that I got away with it and did well, but I don’t remember a thing as I was so nervous. What I do remember is how I felt when I had finished and resumed my seat; I had a strong sense of “I can do better than that!” Methinks, this is what drives most of us–we watch ourselves deliver our speeches and we are our own worst critics. “I can do better than that!” we assert before trying again. We improve a little, learn a little more about making speeches, and set the bar for ourselves ever higher.
For instance, no longer am I prepared merely to alter the tone and loudness of my voice to emphasize certain points in the speech. I look to have an obvious structure to my speeches. A notable beginning, a flawless transition into a middle phase and an emphatic, memorable ending. I want to gesticulate and use my body language effectively to draw in my audience. I want to move around the stage so that I engage the entire room. This is a far cry from the Tayo who only a few months ago was praying, “Please don’t let me make a fool of myself by not being able to say anything”. (That was an actual fear, believe it or not, and it hounded my first proper speech, my ice-breaker speech.)
Toastmasters International–everyone is welcome
Finally, I’d like to point out that several of my fellow members are not even native English speakers. Many come from other European countries–Poland, Bulgaria, France, Spain and Portugal—whilst others come from China and Central Africa. Include me in there and you can add West Africa to that cosmopolitan line up too.
So, all said and done, if you would like a hobby—and a useful one at that—why not seek out your nearest branch of Toastmasters and determine to attend a meeting?
I hope that I’ve given you a solid understanding of what to expect at such events and that I’ve explained how you will find a warm welcome and a super-friendly atmosphere. If you’re having trouble locating a Toastmasters club near you, shoot me an email or write a comment and we’ll see what we can do about it. Meanwhile, have a nice day–or evening, or morning–wherever you are. Ta-ra for now.
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