It’s Never Too Late to Learn to Love Public Speaking

May 11, 2011

*This story was a part of the Impowerage “It’s Never Too Late” Writing Contest. Voting is now closed and you can see the contest winner here.

By Madeleine Kolb

Madeleine in plane It was a day to remember. December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the first powered, controlled flight by the Wright Brothers. There I was in a large meeting room full of aeronautical engineers, telling the story. Projected on a screen behind me were photographs of Orville or Wilbur flying over the sands at Kitty Hawk. The audience was rapt, and I was exhilarated. I couldn’t have done it without Toastmasters!

Step 1: Joining Toastmasters
The mere thought of public speaking is terrifying to many people. I’d done some speaking on-the-job in my younger days, and—while I wasn’t terrified—I was often nervous. I’d had little experience in it and no training. I guess the managers never thought about it.

I did though. I’d heard about Toastmasters, and I promised myself that I’d check it out. Some day. And I did. One day, many years later, I went online and found a Toastmasters club that met one evening a week in the basement of a nearby church.

On the appointed day, I set out with no idea what to expect. But as soon as I walked in, I was welcomed warmly. I sat back to enjoy the meeting which included three speakers, a section called Table Topics, and an evaluator for each speaker. I was impressed by the well-organized meeting, the friendliness, and the laughter. I didn’t know what to expect, but it, certainly, wasn’t people laughing and enjoying themselves while learning public speaking.

Step 2: Giving All Sorts of Speeches
The next week I went back and joined. And before long I gave my first speech—called the “Ice Breaker”—in the club and got a supportive evaluation. I was on my way and went on to give speech after speech on topics, such as:

  • Mad cow disease,
  • How to do the Heimlich Maneuver (using a human prop),
  • Dogs with jobs, and
  • Multi-tasking madness

Madeleine KolbStep 3: Learning the Power of Supportive Feedback
The way to learn a complex skill is to try it, get some feedback, try it again using the feedback, get some more feedback, and so on. Toastmasters calls it “evaluation,” but whatever you call it, feedback can be nerve-wracking.

In fact, Woody Allen once said, “I love feedback, I just don’t want to step in any.” But in Toastmasters, it’s not like that. An evaluator tells a speaker in a supportive way what he did well and then makes several suggestions to make the speech even better.

It was wonderful to see how well this simple process worked, to see a speaker’s ability and confidence soar. What a pleasure to see my fellow Toastmasters tell their stories from the heart. Some examples:

  • Josh, a methodical financial planner, becoming lyrical as he talked about The Trip of a Lifetime, sailing alone in his boat on the Sea of Mexico and a particular night when the stars and the lights and the sound of the sea were magical.
  • Marissa talking about a long-anticipated trip to Mumbai with her husband. The timing (in late November, 2008) couldn’t have been worse though, and they ended up in the middle of a terrorist attack.
  • Bob sharing hilarious, wildly implausible stories of his boyhood in Alabama—stories often involving shotguns and unexpected encounters with wildlife.

Step 4: Learning to Help Others Become Better Speakers
Gradually, I became not only a better speaker but also a good evaluator—one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of Toastmasters. Several years ago I was touched to get a farewell note from a fellow Toastmaster which said,

“Madeleine ….One of the reasons I joined the club was because of the evaluations I heard you give when I visited the club. I heard advice you gave people, saw how much they were learning from you each week…”

Step 5: Learning to Keep Challenging Myself
As my public speaking skills improved, I began to love the whole process: the research, writing, and interaction with an audience. At work, I volunteered to give training presentations and to tell the story of The First Flight, and last fall the biggest challenge yet. I entered a Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest, winning at the first three levels and going on to the fourth and final level.

It was a huge thrill, something I never contemplated years ago when I walked into a room in the basement of a church in Seattle. There I was on a stage in front of a large audience, giving my humorous speech, and people were laughing and enjoying themselves. I couldn’t have done it without Toastmasters!

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