I’m going to start this with a few quotes from the Dark Knight Batman trilogy. You may be asking yourself, “What does Batman have to do with public speaking or my Toastmasters experience?” Read on to find out.
The trilogy often times dealt with the theme of fear, how we choose to channel it, and the nature of our relationship with this powerful emotion.
“ …What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things.”
– Ra’s Al Ghul
“Now’s not the time for fear. That comes later.”
Public speaking involves a similar theme for most of us. We feel a nervous energy or fear arise within us. Then we are presented with several choices:
- We can fight against it with all our might hoping we can annihilate this fear with the sheer force of our will.
- We can run away from this fear with the goal that eventually we’ll find some small corner of our mind and potential we can hide where we will not be found.
- We can learn to get comfortable with the fear and channel it. We can choose to explore the nature of the fear and where it comes from. Recognize that this fear is a signal alerting us that we find ourselves in a great opportunity for growth, that we are uncomfortable because we are risking something. We risk being wrong, looking foolish, and making a mistake. At the same time, we risk doing something great, learning something important, and making an impact. We risk doing something worthwhile, the “great or terrible things” alluded to by Ra’s Al Ghul.
This is a story of my own Toastmasters journey. Cue dramatic Batman chase music.
There were many reasons for my initial interest in Toastmasters. I noticed during work that it was hard for me to contribute to discussions in meetings. I preferred to think by myself about something for a long time and then present the idea when it was ready. Unfortunately, most work environments just don’t work that way. You are expected to to have your opinion and thoughts ready immediately after hearing the information.
Another reason was that I felt pretty anxious, especially during company-wide “demo days” when I was expected to present what I had been working on. My legs and hands would tremble. Sometimes I would have an entertaining idea to liven the presentation up but then I wouldn’t work up the nerve to do it when the moment came.
The final reason was that I thought doing something that sounded so uncomfortable would be good for me, help me grow as a person, and reach my full potential. I wondered if somewhere inside myself I had the ability to lead, inform, or entertain.
What is Toastmasters
Toastmasters is a nonprofit club that has been around for a very long time. It is dedicated to not just public speaking skills, but leadership development as well. You gain these skills first and foremost by volunteering for various meeting roles which involve impromptu evaluations, meeting facilitation, and hosting skills. You also follow an educational curriculum called a path in the pathways system. The curriculum will give you projects to complete, each with a speech, and occasionally some other assignment. At the beginning the projects focus on different aspects of public speaking. Later on they include coaching, panel discussions, blogging, podcasts, leadership, and consensus building.
There are also opportunities to further develop your leadership skills by serving as an officer for your club, area, or district.
My experience and results
When I first started, I was extremely anxious. This anxiety decreased very slowly over the course of time, but it did eventually decrease. I found that it helped to re-frame my relationship with that nervous energy. Instead of fighting it, or despairing that it existed at all, simple acknowledgement and observation seemed to do the trick. Truth be told you can’t really force the anxiety away. It naturally goes away with practice. Though I would argue if you are feeling really comfortable you aren’t taking enough risks to continue growing as a speaker.
Eventually folks at work started to notice, especially during demos. I received compliments on how I presented. I was asked to do more public speaking. This was before most of the anxiety had even decreased or gone away! I also got better at collecting my thoughts and participating in meetings.
The club nominated me President and I accepted, seeing it as another opportunity to do something that scared me but also offered a lot of opportunity to grow. That role helped me become more comfortable organizing meetings, making announcements, facilitating, and coaching. It added another level to my Toastmasters experience for which I’m very grateful.
Nearly two years later, I’m much better at speaking in groups, sharing my opinion in meetings, and presenting my ideas. The strong anxiety and trembling that plagued me early on has mostly disappeared. That’s not to say that I never lose my train of thought or never make a mistake, but rather, I’m less bothered when these things happen. I also learned that I can sometimes entertain folks when I’m in front of a crowd. I never imagined I would be the sort of guy that could do that. Sometimes I’d even have fun putting on a bit of a performance. “Who is this person?” I would sometimes ask myself.
Slowly I’m learning that fear is often a positive thing indicating that I’m putting myself out there, taking a risk, creating something, growing as a person, or doing something that matters. The greatest moments of our lives are characterized not by timidity, avoidance, and comfort, but rather the daring vulnerability inherent in diving into uncertainty and confronting challenges.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend Toastmasters for folks wanting to become better public speakers, participate more often in work meetings, lead/host events, improve leadership skills, or decrease anxiety. However, Toastmasters isn’t magic, and to reap the full benefits you do need to hold yourself accountable and invest the time necessary.