I still remember the day vividly in 1989 when it happened. I was standing with four others in a large lecture hall, staring at my expectant audience. We were delivering our capstone project presentation for our master’s degree program at Santa Clara University. My turn to present arrived. Suddenly my hands were clammy, my chest tightened up and I could not put together a coherent sentence. An uneasy silence permeated the room as I stood, unable to speak.
Eventually, I was able to blurt out some of the information I prepared but passed the baton to the next speaker with less than half of my talk delivered.
This was not my first time struggling to speak in public. I had other times where I froze in front of a group. Fortunately, I worked at a plant where the plant manager was interested in the success of all the people under him – including me. He gently suggested to several of my young colleagues and me that we join a Toastmasters Club to help grow our public speaking and leadership skills. As a young professional wanting a career, I warmed to the message.
My first speech for Toastmasters was called “an icebreaker,” and it was about an easy topic – me. I moved on to other speech topics where I focused on various aspects of public speaking: proper use of gestures, body language, vocal variety, speaking to diverse audiences, etc. I also had the chance to give one to two-minute impromptu speeches in a section of the meeting they called “Table Topics.”
It was not always comfortable, but the great thing about Toastmasters was that I knew I was in a supportive environment where people wanted me to succeed. I gradually gained the confidence to get through my impromptu and prepared talks without awkward silences.
Some of the skills I developed by participating in Toastmasters are:
At every Toastmasters meeting, club members must fill a specific role (and responsibilities change each meeting:)
Some members progress to club leadership positions where they get experience running a club as a small business. Club leadership members participate in goal planning, marketing, operations and finance roles and collectively set the course for the club.
Over the years, I have been required to speak in front of groups of people. The skills I developed in Toastmasters helped me to successfully present to over 200 finance executives at Emerson’s headquarters, present a financial plan to Emerson’s chief executive officer and to successfully make presentations at trade conferences. Not to mention the confidence it gives me when leading department meetings and company board meetings.
Are you prepared for the day you ride up an elevator with a top executive in your building who asks you for a quick update on the project you have been working?
For me, Toastmasters provided a safe place where I could learn to control my nerves when speaking. Over time I realized that I have a story to tell – many stories! They are my stories, and while others may be more knowledgeable on a topic, they don’t have my perspective.
This is true for you too. Your stories are unique! The world will be richer, having heard them! Whether you are a timid speaker, learning the language or looking to identify blind spots in your public speaking, a group such as Toastmasters can help. If Toastmaters isn't your style of learning Google a public speaking course at your local university, find a meet-up group or take a local improv class.
Are you a member of a professional group that has helped you develop skills such as public speaking, leadership or other valuable workplace and life skills?
Contributing Editor Credits: Chelsea McGovern
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