Saturday, 17 November 2012

Being a toastmaster

When I moved to the UK from Albania I didn't know much about the English. I had to look for a job and I was in a phase of self-doubt, a little bit similar to how I felt in my early twenties. I had gone back in time and was redeveloping my personality again! 

I didn't see myself as timid but I wasn't good at public speaking. I would get very anxious and scared of it. I started creating all sorts of rules and tools to manage it and when possible avoid it. 

So in the midst of an emotional turmoil caused by some 'obscure reasons' I came to the UK. The language and culture were almost new, I could speak English but of the international kind, slightly limited in vocabulary and adapted to an institutional talk. 

I found a job quite quickly - three months later but as I was new and needed to learn about the sector I was at back at the drawing board in terms of professional development. My fear of speaking in public, in a new language and in a new sector continued. Googling my problem as you do I found out about toastmasters clubs. I went to visit my local one, tucked away in Richmond Town Hall, in Twickenham. I liked it but decided to join a while later. 

Ten months after being a member I was asked to become president of the club and I accepted. An experienced member of the club, an American lady with a confident and clear voice was instrumental in me deciding to accept. She was encouraging and told me 'you will learn a lot and you will do a great job'. So I gave in to a new kind of pleasure and responsibility. I was the president of the club - el presidente! When I had to stop it was because of a well advanced pregnancy.

The whole experience was invaluable, I learned a lot about writing and delivering speeches, the various techniques you can use and how to control the adrenaline rushing through your body. I became used to my voice and my image. I was very reluctant to see myself recorded delivering a speech at first as I thought I would see all the things I am worried about during the speech. But I did it and I remember what my mentor told me - another experienced toastmaster who has won numerous prizes and awards - it will help. So it did! It helped me a lot as I realised that I wasn't as bad as I thought and also I noticed I did things I wasn't aware of, such as moving my foot nervously to one side. Of course I still get nervous when talking to an audience but I don't have the 'fight or flight' immediate reaction when standing up to speak, I can control it. The key was practice and getting used to speaking to an audience. 

Being a toastmaster also taught me a lot about English culture and people, what they like, how they express themselves, what makes them laugh. That in particular is quite different, not only for the 'English' kind of humour i.e. ironic or self-deprecating but also about what people like, their tastes and interests. Popular culture is something one can always draw upon, personal stories are always well received, stories of success and achievement of goals get good evaluations and stories sharing tips about self-improvement and increasing confidence are inspirational and widely used in the toastmasters world. Above all use of humour makes a big difference. 

I progressed through five speaking projects, from introducing myself to an audience to using vocal variety and getting my message across. 

Of course it was nerve-racking to stand in front of an audience of 25-30 people to deliver a speech about myself for the first time.  

I have continuously made use of the strong multiculturalism of my background, in most of my speeches even more so for the first one. Multiculturalism was my card. I took it so far as in one speech I talked about my honeymoon in Japan with my British husband, which I met back home in Albania after returning from seven years of studies in France. One of the recommendations from that speech was to focus in a few particular examples otherwise the audience gets lost.

Toastmasters club use a method which is quite easy to understand and master in its basic elements.  Learning from practice, from regular feedback, respecting the structure of a speech that is opening, middle and closing, making an impact from the start, making eye contact with the audience. And of course very important the CRC - commend, recommend, commend. This applies to anything but in particular when giving feedback. To make a constructive comment start by commending what was good, then give a recommendation for improvement and end on another commending note picking on a different element.

Initially expressions, nuances of words and cultural references used to frustrate me as I wasn't familiar with them. But at the club I could see people using them to express their emotions, thoughts and humour. 

From the speeches I delivered I always had the feeling that my humour and way of thinking were different and that I didn't really reach people's sensitivity - I didn't strike a cord with them. I was nice, delivered good speeches, had always a smile on - so people said in their evaluation slips - which makes things easier but I didn't speak the same ' language' (of course I don't mean English) as other fellow toastmasters. I was not good at winning competitions and the reason I think had to do with me still being an outsider; I wasn't telling stories that resonated with the audience. But as I progressed I learnt more about the styles that resonate. 

The toastmaster experience was really useful not only for my personal development but also for better knowing 'the English'. 

So I gained a lot from it and I hope I gave back enough to the club while I was still a member and president.  

If I could (if I had the time and energy) I would continue but perhaps I will after all? Who knows?

What about you, have you had any similar experiences, have you been a toastmaster, have you thought of joining, returning? I'd love to hear more.