A few months ago, I did something that I had been meaning to do for years. I joined a local Toastmasters club.
Toastmasters is an international organization with local clubs, where members give speeches that are in turn evaluated and critiqued by their fellow members. It’s been around since the 1920s. Some of the more famous Toastmasters have included actor and comedian Tim Allen, former Boston Celtics player and coach K.C. Jones and the venerable Dr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy. There have also been many noted politicians and business leaders, including the founder of Mrs. Field’s Cookies. Sweet!
“Why are you doing this?” a friend asked. “You’re a good speaker already.”
“No, I’m really not.” I hated to admit it. I was out of practice.
Preparation and practice simply make for better and more effective communication. Days that used to be filled with phone calls, live presentations and face-to-face exchanges, are now occupied with emails and all the various forms of digital communication that have replaced simple, every day conversations. I decided I needed to make sure when it was my turn to open my mouth and express my thoughts and ideas, it would be without “uhs” and “likes”, properly paced and, most of all, coherent.
I like my club. Our members are diverse and of different ages and walks of life. What we have in common is that we are there because we want to be more comfortable when speaking in front of other people, whether it be a church or work group, family and friends, or customers and prospects.
The meetings are very structured. Everyone has predetermined roles and the agenda is strictly followed. As a new Toastmaster, you need to present specific types of speeches to reach your first level as a Competent Communicator.
You are encouraged to memorize or use outlines, instead of reading directly from a script. This means once you have your speech or outline written, practice and repetition are key. I poured over and practiced that first, introduction speech for hours and days, making sure my words flowed and I didn’t go over my allotted time.
Boom! Nailed it. I must say, that first speech came off much better than I was expecting. All the nervousness and dry mouth was wiped away because I prepared and practiced.
When it came time for the second speech, I was all over it. It was going to be a piece of cake. I wrote the outline, practiced a few times and confidently took my place at the podium.
Then the worst possible thing happened. I opened my mouth and the “uhs” and “likes” started pouring out. I couldn’t remember a thing. Nothing. I buried my face in my hands, apologized and told the group I needed to come back next week, after I practiced a bit more. While I felt traumatized, everyone kept it light and offered words of encouragement and empathy.
So my point... when it comes to any speech, presentation or pitch you need to perform, prepare accordingly and practice, practice, practice.
You may be working your company’s trade show at McCormick Place, talking in person with clients about the features and benefits of a new product or service, or interviewing for a new position.
Those first words that come out and how they come out, will either showcase your expertise and knowledge, or your lack of it.
Practice, practice, practice.
When your mouth comes up dry at that big presentation before the board of directors, and you bury your head in your hands and tell them you need to come back next week, there will probably be words. Words of some kind, but definitely not words associated with encouragement.
The Elmhurst/Addison Toastmasters Club meets every other Wednesday at the Elmhurst Public Library. See you there.
P.S. - Interesting Anecdote:
About five years ago, I was on a college visit with my daughter. It was a large, state university which shall remain nameless for this story.
A group of about 100 prospective parents and students gathered in a reception area and were led into a large auditorium. Within a few minutes, a very young, attractive, well-dressed woman walked onto the stage, clicking her high heels along the way. She quickly had everyone’s attention. The room was silent.
“Welcome to the University of -------!”, she exclaimed. For the next four or five minutes, she talked about what we would be doing for the next few hours. Almost every other word was “like” or “um”. She would put her hand over her mouth from time to time and her words would be mumbles. It was apparent to most in the room that she was uncomfortable and definitely not prepared.
At the end of her speech, she proudly proclaimed that she was a recent graduate of this school with a degree in communications.
You could hear the collective dropping of jaws of each parent in the audience.
She must have missed out on a few of her speech classes.
Oh, and my daughter didn’t end up applying there (thank goodness).