How Toastmasters Changed My Life

I’ve been reading and posting comments on Susan Cain’s excellent blog “Quiet: The Power Of Introverts” in the past week.  Susan is starting a public speaking project, challenging introverts to join Toastmasters.  When she announced this project I sent her an email saying how joining Toastmasters had allowed me to conquer my intense fear of public speaking.  Susan encouraged me to tell my Toastmaster story, and it is now published as a guest blog entry on her website here. Below is a copy – it was a good exercise for me, too, to relive those Toastmaster memories as I take on new challenges in my life. – Tim

I’m a 55 year old small business owner who frequently gives speeches to promote the travel agency my wife and I run.  I enjoy speaking to groups.  I am also an introvert.  Yes an introvert can enjoy public speaking!  But I wasn’t always comfortable giving presentations.  Here’s my story of how joining Toastmasters changed my life:

In my early years I was TERRIFIED of public speaking.  As a painfully shy teenager, I remember one incident in a public library where I was afraid to check out a book because I would have to talk to the librarian.  It didn’t get much better in college.  I earned good grades, yet avoided any classes that involved giving presentations.  In one class my teacher said we would have to talk about our class projects during the last session.  Having done well on tests I knew I had a sure “A” in the class without needing to endure this public torture.  I didn’t show up.

After graduating college and entering the business world, though, I started to notice how my lack of speaking skill was negatively affecting my career. Management didn’t know who I was. I had to do something.  I was invited by a co-worker to join a Toastmaster club that met during the lunch hour once a week. I summoned up every ounce of courage I had and joined.  In talking to my Dad about this decision, and telling him how nervous I was, he said, “You can talk to me, can’t you?  Speaking in front of groups is no different.  You’ll see.”

In Toastmasters the first speech is called “the icebreaker”, where you tell your life story in a 7 minute talk.  I couldn’t just talk about myself for 7 minutes!  I needed a diversion.  I came up with a plan to make up newspaper headlines about different milestones of my life.  “The audience will be looking at those headlines, and not at me,” I thought, while I spoke on the story behind each headline.  The speech was a big hit!  With every Toastmaster presentation you receive an oral evaluation from one other member.  My evaluator that day said the speech “was the best icebreaker she had ever heard, and also the most expensive!” (she was right – getting those fake newspaper headlines made was not cheap!)  I also received positive written evaluations from club members.

After that encouraging Toastmaster debut, my confidence slowly grew, speech by speech.  I earned my CTM (“Competent Toastmaster”) certificate after 15 talks.  I earned my ATM (“Able Toastmaster”) certificate after 15 more.  I once entered the club humor speech contest. Much to my surprise I won, and then went on to win a competition against 6 winners from other clubs at the next level.  I have a dry sense of humor which I enjoyed surprising people with in speeches.  I was even asked to give my winning humorous speech to the annual State Toastmaster convention.  There I was in front of a room of 200 people giving my Bachelor Housekeeping talk. And I thought to myself, “you know, this is kind of fun!” I was in Toastmasters a total of 10 years, and joining the organization was one of the best decisions I ever made.  Not only did it help me with prepared speeches, it improved my ability to speak off the cuff (in weekly impromptu speaking sessions called “table topics”) and in giving and receiving feedback in evaluations.

So if you have a fear of public speaking and you are considering joining Toastmasters, I encourage you to take the leap.  Here are a few suggestions from someone who made the slow transformation from fear to confidence in public speaking:

1.  If you are a good writer, you will be a good speaker.  Speaking is all about telling compelling stories.  I already could write well, I just had to get over the nerves of delivering my message to a group.  Your writing skills will be a wonderful aid as you take those first tentative steps in public speaking.

2.  The more you speak, the easier it gets.  The beauty of Toastmasters is that it requires you to give some type of talk in front of your club at EVERY meeting.  While you may give a 7 minute speech once every 3 months or so, there are many lesser roles where you speak in front of the group each week.  The table topics and evaluations I mentioned are two such roles, and even simple tasks like explaining the timing procedures are asked of you.  It is a well designed program to get club members speaking at each meeting in one form or another.

3.  After you get over those initial nerves, keep pushing yourself.  For me I became comfortable speaking in front of my own club after a few speeches.  Those people became my friends.  Speaking in a contest was another matter.  When I won our club contest I thought “oh no – now I have to speak in front of a bunch of strangers at the area contest!”  But i did it, gaining confidence along the way.  Toastmasters gives you the opportunity to visit other clubs and speak, too, which I took advantage of.

4.  Once you become comfortable speaking in front of groups, you won’t suddenly turn into an extrovert.  I’m still an introvert!  There are times when I am in a conversation with a bunch of extroverts where I will hardly say a word.  The way I process information is to think before I speak, and sometimes I find just when I am ready to add my two cents the conversation has moved on to another topic.  But that’s ok.  I’m learning to accept that part of myself.

You know, my Dad turned out to be right about public speaking.  Giving a speech is like a conversation with a friend, only in front of a lot more people.  If you are reading this thinking “Toastmasters worked for him, but I could never do this. I’m just not good at talking in front of an audience” I urge you to reconsider.  Take the risk and join a club near you.  The World is waiting for the gifts you have to share.

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Tim Larison today frequently gives speeches at a weekly business group he is a part of.  He is also the Colorado director of the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA), and in that role also speaks in front of groups often.  In the past year Tim decided to stretch himself once more by starting a blog where he writes about spirituality and life (www.calmwithin.com)  He’s now taking those first tentative steps in his public writing that remind him of his early days in Toastmasters.

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3 Responses to How Toastmasters Changed My Life

  1. James Feudo says:

    Excellent post – thanks so much for sharing your personal story. I went through something similar with my career which lead me to Toastmasters. I had to give a presentation at a former job and found myself scared to do death about presenting to a small group of people I knew very well. Joining Toastmasters help me deal with this fear and now I teach people how to overcome their fears of public speaking.

    • Tim Larison says:

      Ever since I wrote about my Toastmaster experience, James, I’ve been hearing from more and more people about how the organization helped them overcome their public speaking fears. That’s great you were able to conquer your fear and now you are helping others. Thanks for the note.

  2. Özmen Adıbelli says:

    Great post Tim. I am invited to be guest for the first time. I was surfing net to get what it is like to be a member of toastmasters. The story is really heartening. Especially first item “if you are a good writer, you will be a good speaker ” makes feeling comfortable and it is totally right.
    Thank you.

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