As a new member, my first few experiences at Burnaby Mountain Toastmasters began with cold hands, a dry mouth, and a blank mind on stage; yet, I persuaded myself to go to the club each week to face my fear: public embarrassment. It is a common saying to face your fears, and it seems that it is sometimes the only way we can conquer those fears in order to learn useful strategies to deal with them and to reach our goals. In the case of public speaking, Toastmasters is valuable for exactly the exposure and practice to actively face areas of needed improvement in communication and leadership.
Toastmasters International supports clubs world-wide to offer practice through specific responsibilities and speeches that members may choose from meeting-to-meeting. Communication skills can be gained in prepared speeches and impromptu speeches; the latter, open to both guests and members.
Kevin, an experienced Toastmasters member, points out relation between the “Table Topics” impromptu session and interview settings,
“With job interviews, there are things that you can prepare for, for example the typical “tell us about your strengths or weaknesses”.
Those ones, you’re asked pretty much every interview so it is expected. But beyond that, there are a lot of questions that you just can’t prepare for… So Table Topics goes on along the way to improve the way you can think on the fly, think on the spot, and put forward ideas that make sense.”
With that being said, prepared speeches are just as valuable. The time and effort put into them promotes thoughtfulness in the contents of a good speech: quality of voice, body language, content structure, to name a few. All these aspects are evaluated in meetings by fellow peer evaluators, one of the positions open weekly to members. Positions involve responsibilities for maintaining order in meetings, where leadership experience is involved. A particular role I find useful is the grammarian, who takes note of positive and negative uses of language in other members, including crutch and filler word such as “umm”, “like”, and “so” that many of us unconsciously incorporate into our daily language.
Steve, another experienced Toastmasters member, describes the importance of these roles,
“What happens is that you will participate from small roles to big roles such as, a chairman for the meeting to actually learn about how the meeting goes and how to plan it, so that goes into a couple of things in leadership because you are leading a meeting, [also] management with a group of people, because you have to bring people together to run a meeting. You need to learn about organizing, planning, and sometimes things go out of the plan, where if someone does not show up to the meeting then you have to be quick and prepare what to do for Plan B.… it gives a mock office environment per se, to practice conflict [solving] and communication, and how to be successful in event organization.”
All this being considered, meetings are meant to provide an atmosphere where it is okay to make mistakes! In fact, mistakes are treasured as learning opportunities for improvement. Kevin suggests, “Don’t be afraid to push your boundaries. Don’t be afraid to do something you feel you are not totally comfortable with.… The first person I was assigned to [as an evaluator] was actually very professional. She had already done multiple speeches. I accepted to go over the evaluation procedures and pretty much hoped for the best. So after doing that, I found ‘this isn’t too bad!’.” Kevin found the value in “getting comfortable by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations”.
Toastmasters provides a practice environment for essential thinking and speaking skills, so that we would gain confidence to transfer these learned skills in similar, future situations, and also in ourselves. As Steve highlights,
“… it actually offers me confidence to step up a role or an opportunity that [is] given to me. For example, if someone asked me if I wanted to stand up in front of 200 students or kids to talk about my life, 3 years ago, then I probably would have said “no” just because it is too scary…. What kind of message [could I have given] to them? What I think I have accomplished so far is that Toastmasters has given me the opportunity to practice and find messages in my own life that I can share with others.”
As a new member, I hope I will be able to also achieve a similar level of confidence with practice and time, with warmer hands, a self-assured voice, and collected thoughts on stage. Toastmasters is a valuable learning opportunity for all ages and backgrounds to connect with others of the same goal of improving oneself professionally for a career, which I personally enjoy, and you may too!
Check out Burnaby Mountain Toastmasters on Wednesdays at 6:30PM in room C9002 in the Academic Quadrangle of Simon Fraser University.
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Toastmasters International: www.toastmasters.org