Back in the spring of 2006 I joined a local Toastmasters club, and in retrospect, this was probably one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. I should have joined much sooner.
My dad first told me about Toastmasters when I was in my mid-20s. He said that he was a member when he was about my age, and found it tremendously helpful. I thought to myself: “Wow – when my dad was my age, I didn’t think that humans had even developed language – never mind organizing themselves into social groups and creating public speaking clubs!”. He went on to say that one of his first dates with my mom was a visit to his Toastmasters club during which he delivered a speech, and that she must have been impressed because they eventually got married. Therefore, I owe my very existence to Toastmasters!
He couldn’t recommend it strongly enough and kept encouraging me to join. He told me that my membership would benefit me greatly, although he didn’t go into much detail – saying only that I would appreciate all that they had to offer. I had only a vague idea of what Toastmasters was. I knew it had something to do with public speaking, but I just couldn’t fathom why my dad thought that was important or how I could benefit from it. My job at the time didn’t require any public speaking. So, after listening to him, I considered his suggestion, and then did what most young adults do when given parental advice… nothing.
I didn’t think about Toastmasters again for at least another decade. One day I had the opportunity to watch a videotape of myself speaking, and I was less than impressed. I had no screen presence whatsoever, and I came across as dull and lifeless. I was even getting bored watching my own video! If this was how I was coming across to people, then clearly it was time for some professional help. So I decided to take my dad’s advice and join a local Toastmasters club.
Now, years later, my Toastmasters experience is still fantastic. The other members made me much more aware of how I communicate, what I did well, and areas in which I could improve. They also made numerous fascinating observations about communication itself. For example: when answering a question, most people – especially those interviewed on television – will begin each sentence with the same word. Can you guess what this word is? The answer is “Well…”. This is one habit that distinguishes a professional journalist or broadcaster from an amateur. Listen to interviews by Bill Clinton or Walter Cronkite – they answer the questions immediately and never preface them with any filler words. Contrast that with a typical “man on the street” interview from a local television station – the interviewee, about 90% of the time, will answer each question the same way: “Well…”.
As I continued with the club, something new and unexpected began to emerge – I noticed that there were additional benefits to being a member of Toastmasters, beyond the tutoring I was receiving with my public speaking and presentation skills.
- Networking: When we give our speeches we share information about ourselves, and over time our fellow Toastmasters often become our friends. In my club, we often meet at a nearby doughnut shop after our meetings just to chat some more and enjoy each other’s company. Our members come from varied backgrounds, and the networking opportunities can be considerable.
- An Enriched Environment: People join Toastmasters for various reasons – some are climbing the corporate ladder and will soon be in a role that requires them to make presentations or even deal with the media. Others use Toastmasters as a stepping stone in their quest to become a motivational speaker. One thing that is common among our members is that they are all more ambitious than average. Everyone not only sees a need for self-improvement but s/he is taking steps to realize that goal, including putting in the time to attend meetings, write and rehearse speeches and mentor other members. When all of these ambitious people are in the same room, it creates a stimulating and inspirational environment.
- Connections: Toastmasters meetings allow you to connect to your fellow human beings in a way that’s just not possible with social media. Facebook wall posts, 140-character tweets and Instagram photos pale in comparison to the emotional and personal connection of a speech. Speeches can be intensely personal, and each week, you have the opportunity to hear people speak for 5-7 minutes all about their hopes, dreams, fears and ambitions. These are real people, standing right in front of you, rather than mere images or words on a screen. You’ll get to know them, see the world from their point of view, and share in their personal struggles and victories.
- The Joy of Helping Others: As you acquire and hone your public-speaking and leadership skills, new members will often approach you and ask for advice. For me, this is the most gratifying aspect of Toastmasters. I can see the nervousness and apprehension in new members, and I can empathize with them as they struggle to confront their fear of speaking in front of an audience. I am also grateful that I can offer them encouragement, as well as practical tips and advice. Finally, I am often able to spot in new members, talents and abilities that they don’t recognize themselves. It is always a joy to point out what someone does well, even if they don’t believe it at first. Helping people recognize their potential and see the gifts that lie inside them is what keeps me coming to meetings every week, even after seven years.
Another notable benefit was one that was emerged slowly, and then kept growing. Our speech manuals list projects, but the speech topics are up to us – we can speak about whatever we like for 5-7 minutes (except religion, politics and sex). We also have to select a topic that will keep our audience interested or entertained for those 5-7 minutes. This can be a challenge for new members.
Members of my club often approach me and say “I’m having trouble coming up with ideas for my speeches. Nothing really interesting ever happens in my life”. You don’t need to wait for something incredible to happen to you. One secret to good speech writing is being able to look at something that’s ordinary, and then make it extraordinary or even fascinating. Try to make people look at an object, behaviour or event from a different angle. For example, I once wrote a philosophical speech about a guy who was sitting on a couch, watching TV and eating cookies out of a bag; I called it The Last Cookie Enjoyment. It’s not so much what happens to you or to other people, it’s the significance that you see in the event.
I’m constantly looking for new speech ideas, and as a result, I’m examining life much more closely, noticing things that have previously escaped my attention, and looking for patterns in everything. Since joining Toastmasters, I’ve been experiencing the world more vividly and taking in more details than before. I know it sounds clichéd, but my life has steadily become richer since joining Toastmasters. If I may use a recent movie title, “everything is illuminated”.
Looking back, I suspect that these peripheral benefits were what my dad had in mind all along, when he recommended Toastmasters. He didn’t say anything at the time because he wanted me to experience this joy of discovery for myself. I must admit, it took me a while, but now I’m finally starting to appreciate his advice.
Smart guy, my dad…