I started coming to Brighton and Hove Speakers Club over a year ago now. I wanted to confront my fear of public speaking and I remember how nervous I was when asked to stand up and introduce myself. How my heart raced as each person went through their 15 second warm up and my time came closer and closer.
A month or so later, my first speech consisted mainly of standing to attention and blurting out everything I could think of in my life. In my second, I tried to explain the mechanics of photography. That was it for a while and I just attended a few meetings, listened and clapped.
Eventually I realised I had to get going again and launched into a third speech which I approached with a little more thought. People at Brighton Speakers Club are very supportive and tips and tricks are shared freely. One evening I was saying that I found it difficult to do without notes and could never memorise a speech and someone suggested that I practice in the car on the way to work.
Practise in the car
My daily commute is a drive of over an hour each way and so for a week I found myself muttering away to myself while I streaked up the M23 every morning. I’d get into the inside lane, watch the clock, wait for the next minute and then start the speech. This worked very well notwithstanding the occasional unplanned pause while I overtook a lorry or slowed to allow for a car in front. Tip for anyone thinking of copying this idea: Don’t start until you’re past the wiggly bit in the A23.
At my next Toastmasters speech I was flabbergasted to find I could recite the speech almost word for word. I was amazed that I was capable of this but then, why should I be different from anyone else? I continued for a few more speeches and then late last year I reached my sixth speech.
When we join Toastmasters we are given a course book which we follow or ignore as we wish. The book has ten types of speeches and each has a specific theme. The theme of the sixth speech is tonal variety. I ran through the speech fine and my reviewer praised my writing. However, it was obvious, that I had, more or less, spoken in a monotone throughout. When I get up to speak in front of an audience I find that it is all I can do not to freeze and like many of us any natural relaxed qualities such as tonal range go out the window.
I decided that reading the speech verbatim was holding me back. While initially it had been a support it was now holding me back. I needed to start to improvise and express myself a bit. I scheduled a repeat of my sixth speech but this time without rehearsing and without notes. I knew the general form of the speech and meandered my way through it making attempts at tonal variety by impersonating characters in a cartoon which I discussed.
It was better. Not perfect but better. I realise that this is an issue for me. I have difficulty relaxing and expressing myself. However I was surprised again that I was able to stand and speak for around six minutes without notes and without falling down.
Over Christmas I lapsed a bit but kept involved by doing a couple of evaluations and attending our Christmas dinner. At the last meeting we were told that Worthing Speakers Club could use some support and so, last Thursday, I drove over after work to see what’s what. The club meets downstairs in the Charles Dickens puband there are fewer members than Brighton. I think the change did me good as, with so few people, I was forced to take on the role of Table Topics Master and Evaluator of one of four speeches. This pushed me into speaking in front of people I had mostly never met. I have to report that I survived.
Toastmasters seems a strange organisation. Why on earth would anyone go? Surely the people must be boring debating nerds? In fact nothing could be further from the truth. In our televised world obsessed with presentation it is easy to become convinced that everyone is infinitely confident and it is only oneself who becomes nervous when speaking in formal situations. Here’s the truth: Everyone gets nervous.
At Toastmasters I have met all sorts of people who attend for all sorts of reasons. Some are taking their first tentative steps and others and experiences and accomplished winners of speaking awards. The speeches can be informative, funny or absurd but they are always better than what’s on the telly. Toastmasters has shown me that it is natural to be nervous, that nerves can be channelled and that doing this can be fun.
I enjoy the bi-weekly meetings and usually end up in the bar afterwards for a chat and a couple of beers. In fact, though this may be merely the ambiance of the Imperial Hotel at the bottom of First Avenue where we meet, Toastmasters now brings to my mind a comfortable Ealing Comedy and I would not be at all surprised to see Alec Guinness stand up one day to give his thoughts on Theosophy. I still can become nervous when speaking to groups but I am forced to admit: I can do it AND I improve all the time.
A few months back we were visited by an official within the Toastmasters organisation. He gave a speech and pointed out that, when speaking at Toastmasters, we are speaking to a bunch of people who want us to succeed. We are amongst friends. Everything we do at Toastmasters is practice and therefore there is no such thing as failure.
He then asked the question: What would you do if it was impossible to fail?