For the first few years after my husband left me, I felt like one of those plastic garbage bags spinning in the wind, being tossed this way and that. I felt unheard, as though I had lost my voice. No matter what I said or did, I seemed to have no control over anything.
And then slowly, very slowly, I started to regain – or, in some cases gain – control. Most were baby steps, which I have documented in this blog: my year of saying ‘yes’, divorce negotiations with my lawyer, buying a house for the first time on my own, preparing a new will, changing my name.
But there was one problem I kept coming up against. My new life involves times when I have to give a speech in public. While I was fine with my notes and powerpoint script in front of me, throw me an unexpected question and I was like a deer in the headlights. It was paralysing.
I needed to find my voice – in more ways than one – and that’s where Toastmasters came in.
I’d heard of Toastmasters, but didn’t really have much idea of what it was about, so I went to that first meeting just to suss it out. I didn’t have to participate – except for telling the other members my name, why I was there, and, at the very end, letting them know what I had thought of the evening. The people at the meeting were great – supporting and encouraging.
There’s a structure to each session. Members take a different role each week, learning how to chair business meetings, giving prepared speeches, learning how to evaluate speeches – which means learning how to really listen, – telling jokes, proposing toasts. Awards are handed out at the end of each meeting, and I can’t tell you what a thrill it is the first time you receive a certificate with your name on it.
But what scared – and has helped – me the most, is the section called Table Topics. The Table Topic Master of the evening prepares a series of questions. If your name is called, you then have up to two minutes to talk on the subject – with no preparation. Although the butterflies in my stomach go crazy when my name is called, I’ve learned the most from this section of the meeting, because talking off the cuff is the hardest thing for me to do in a public setting.
Once I bombed out at 27 seconds – I could not think of a single thing to say and scuttled back to my seat – but I can now mostly manage one to one-and-a-half minutes. But you know what? It’s not embarrassing to ‘fail’, because your fellow Toastmasters want you to succeed. I know that sounds Pollyana-ish… but it’s true. Practice might not make perfect… but it certainly helps, and there are tricks to talking off the cuff – tricks that Toastmasters are happy to share.
For example, one Toastmaster helped me put Table Topics in perspective. If a friend asks us a question, we can always think of a response, can’t we? Toastmasters is no different. Just imagine you are answering a friend.
Other benefits of Toastmasters? Some clubs are connected with work, but mine has members, men and women, from 18 – 89 years of age and they’re all fascinating people. Most are very ‘ordinary’, but they all have wonderful stories to tell and I always come away feeling invigorated. The feedback you receive is always positive and thoughtful. We all want each other to succeed.
If Toastmasters is something you’ve considered but shied away from, I would encourage you to go along to a meeting just to find out what it’s all about. You don’t have to participate if you don’t want to, so what do you have to lose? It’s a great way to meet new people, have fun, learn new things… and find your voice. (And looks good on a CV too!)