Experience has taught me a five minute spiel about Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot usually guarantees the sale of at least one book. For many writers, speaking requires leaving one’s comfort zone. When a friend invited me to visit a Toastmaster meeting, I accepted. A group of writers taught me how to write. Therefore, it was reasonable that a group of speakers could teach me how to speak.
My knowledge about Toastmaster was minimal when I walked into the meeting. The meeting was similar to a writers critique group that helps a writer improve in their craft by receiving comments from other writers. Replace writer with speaker in the preceding sentence and you have a Toastmasters meeting. Toastmasters takes the process a step further by evaluating everything: the 5 to 7 minute speech, the evaluator’s evaluation of the speech and the overall meeting is evaluated.
Becoming a Competent Communicator is the first step. That goal is accomplished by preparing and delivering ten speeches. Each speech adds a new skill to master. The evaluator lets you know how well you mastered the new skill after you deliver the speech. The initial speeches dealt with things familiar to writers: organizing your thoughts, get to the point and use the right words. I was almost halfway through the book without too much of a challenge, but still chained to what I had written. I was doing more reading than speaking.
Speech five sent me into uncharted waters. Is my body language screaming I don’t want to be here while I try to win hearts with words? I had to be aware of my facial expressions, how I stood, moved, and gestured. If that wasn’t enough to remember, speech six demanded vocal variety. A flat monotone simply does not hold a listener’s attention.
The club president encouraged me to give speech six without notes. I decided to throw myself into deep water and sink or swim. I did not write what I planned to say, but I did practice the speech repeatedly. Doing so taught me a new skill. Not only can I edit on paper, I can edit in my head. After I delivered speech six, without notes, the club president encouraged me to attend a district meeting and give the speech I had titled “Love Excluded Me”.
Toastmasters is an international organization with competitions. I joined Toastmasters to become a better speaker “PERIOD”. “Not interested,” I said. Undeterred, he continued to encourage me. When I learned the meeting was a contest, I was even less interested in attending, but on the day of the district meeting I relented. I had become comfortable speaking in front of ten friendly faces whom I knew were pulling for me. I wanted to know if I would be comfortable speaking in front of a larger group of strangers.
I arrived at the district meeting and sat next to my club president where I learned another choice bit of information. I was competing against him, a gifted speaker with excellent delivery. Nothing like a little pressure. I am glad I went. I was surprisingly calm. I stood before thirty, mostly strangers, and delivered “Love Excluded Me” as though I were talking to friends. I saw the yellow warning light and edited two sentences out of the end to guarantee I did not exceed the time limit. Then I returned to my seat. As soon as I sat down a woman handed me a hand written note. She really liked the speech.
I politely waiting for the last two speakers to make their presentation before I made my exit. Scores needed to be tabulated, and the winners announced before the meeting concluded. I wasn’t interested. I had come to test my comfort zone, not to compete. Another woman approached me as I walked to the elevator. She really liked the speech too.
A few days later, I received an email titled “Celebration Toastmaster: Congratulations Teena!!!” I am the Area 14 International Speech Contest Winner, Spring 2014. The announcement made me smile. I am barely half way through the Competent Communicator book and already a speech contest winner. But let’s keep the win in perspective. There were three people competing in Area 14. I was guaranteed to be in the top three. But I did beat the club president who was disqualified when he exceeded the time limit. If it had been my goal to win, I suppose I could do some gloating right now.