Everyone's looking at you. Waiting for you to say something. You stare down at your notes and begin to open your mouth to speak...but nothing comes out. You’ve got sweaty palms, sweaty forehead, sweaty in places that you didn't think could sweat. You have succumbed to the fear of public speaking...and it's real.
This was me...until Toastmasters happened. I became a Toastmasters member when I started working for Kapstone. I had no idea what it was. Being a huge foodie, I had high hopes it involved buttered toast... but nope. It’s actually an organization dedicated to improving people’s public speaking skills.
Now I'm somewhat of a washed up theatre geek - I performed in plays and musicals throughout high school, so you can say I'm comfortable in front of an audience. My biggest downfall, however, was doing presentations. It's one thing to act like a different character and read a playwright’s words. It's a whole other thing to be yourself and read your own words in front of a group of people. Do you know how vulnerable that is?! I felt like people were judging me and so I would stumble through my presentation...praying it would end soon.
Toastmasters changed that. I couldn't believe it but surprisingly within just a few months of joining Toastmasters, I noticed the difference. My confidence grew so much that I actually signed up for the Fall speech contest.
Twice a year, Toastmasters holds a public speaking contest: one in the Fall and one in the Spring. I’ll be honest - I had never imagined I would compete in a speech contest. That sounded intimidating. But I did it anyway. I had been in Toastmasters for only 6 months at that point, but I figured I was pretty good at making wise cracks so it would be fun give it a try.
I lost...to my boss. Hey, somebody's gotta try to stick it to the man!
But I’m glad he won, because I went to see him compete at the next level of the speech contest in our Toastmasters district. I was blown away by how good all the speakers were. Each speaker had different speaking styles and techniques they used to craft their speech. I walked away inspired. I wanted to be just as good as those speakers AND compete at this level too. I just needed a game plan that included setting goals, finding a mentor and keeping my eyes on the prize.
My main goal was to keep improving my speaking skills and competing in as many contests as I could. I worked with a few mentors who I would meet with occasionally. They helped me practice my speeches and gave me tips on how to improve.
Come spring time, I signed up for the Tall Tales Spring Speech Contest at our club. And this time, I won! After that my meetings with my mentors doubled because I was keeping my eyes on the prize. I worked hard to perfect my speech, which included writing multiple versions of the speech and practicing at other Toastmasters clubs on Saturday mornings at 8am...I sacrificed beauty sleep for public speaking glory! It was all worth it because I moved on to the next speech level and the next until I ended up winning the finals! I became the Toastmasters Spring 2016 Founder’s District Tall Tales first place winner. I immediately celebrated with a chicken dinner because...winner, winner - chicken dinner.
I thought the prize was winning a shiny trophy. It turns out the real prizes were my new found speaking skills and the confidence that I CAN accomplish my goals and be the speaker I knew I could be. Yes, it was hard work but you get what you put in. I put my effort into my goal of winning public speaking glory and I didn't let myself slack off. Believe me, there were times I didn't want to practice and would rather watch re-runs of Parks and Rec on TV while snuggling with Mochi (my dog). But I knew I needed to put in a genuine effort if I was serious. Besides, Parks and Rec is always on Netflix.
What really helped me grow as a speaker - more than anything - were all of the honest tips, suggestions and advice from all of the Toastmasters members I met through the practicing at other clubs or at the contests. It is surprising how quickly I improved my public speaking but what's more surprising about Toastmasters is the sense of community you feel. I just love the fact that everyone is there to help you be the incredible speaker you can be. Everyone is all there to improve their speaking skills too. It becomes safe place to fail and of course to celebrate your successes. It's awesome to be a part of a community that cares and really wants to see you succeed. Some of these people may be complete strangers that I might never meet again but when you're part of Toastmasters, it's like you're family!
I know I sound a little obsessed… Toastmasters is real though. It isn’t any ordinary club. It's an international organization, meaning there are clubs everywhere with thousands and thousands of members. It works and has worked for over 100 years. So Google your local Toastmasters and you can thank me later!