Two and a half years ago, I attended my very first Toastmasters meeting. At the time I had no idea what a profound effect Toastmasters would have upon my life and career! Now, as I look back over my time as a member it’s easy to see the amazing impact it has had.
Over a decade ago I was ‘let go’ from an account director role. I hadn’t contributed enough during business meetings because I was too shy to speak up! Ironically, I later ended up working as a professional singer, but I knew I had a bone to pick with public speaking and realised that it was an issue I would eventually have to tackle.
As such, I’d been meaning to attend a Toastmasters meeting, literally, for more than two years before my first visit. One day, I found myself as a visitor at what would become my club, Grosvenor Square Speakers in Central London. I attended 3 consecutive meetings as a guest, and after the 3rd meeting, I joined, knowing I could resist no longer!
If I had to sum up the ways in which Toastmasters has had the biggest impact upon me, I’d say it was in the areas of leadership, community and openness.
As soon as I joined Toastmasters, I was hooked. In my first year of attendance I don’t think I missed more than a single club meeting. And the one I did miss was because my partner booked a holiday without checking with me first. I remember telling him off about it!
I volunteered for as many roles as I could and when, 6 months later, it was time to choose a club president, I was shocked when the acting VPE suggested that I stand. I’d always been a bit of a loner, and had never been an active member of any society or club. At first I told our VPE that I wasn’t right for the role but then I realised what a huge opportunity it would be to help guide the direction of the club and I agreed to stand. Luckily for me I was unopposed! I enjoyed an amazing year of chairing the committee, making suggestions on ways to increase speaking slots and gain more members. I genuinely loved every minute of it.
Part way through my year as president I had the idea of creating a public speaking club for women, outside of Toastmasters. I’d never have had the courage to create my own group if it hadn’t been for the experience of being club president. Having to open and close every meeting helped me with thinking on my feet and the experience of welcoming and encouraging new members made it much easier for me to do the same with the ladies that attended my own group, Speak Up Like A DIVA.
Another benefit I found from joining Toastmasters was the strong sense of community. After 5 months at Grosvenor Square, which is a bi-weekly club, I decided to join a second club because I wanted even more of what Toastmasters has to offer. I joined City Limits, a club based near the City of London, which had a high proportion of lawyers. The people were very different to those at Grosvenor but there was still the same feeling of camaraderie and the sense of belonging.
As a more experienced Toastmaster I began to GE at other clubs around London. It was a little intimidating having to stand up and make recommendations to complete strangers, but I found I really enjoyed it and the members of the other clubs welcomed the detailed constructive feedback. It was a wonderful feeling meeting so many new people and yet knowing we were all a part of the same organisation and on a similar journey.
I recently wrote a book, How To Be A DIVA at Public Speaking, comparing my experiences as a professional singer to what I’ve learned so far about public speaking. I joined a Facebook mastermind community for authors with many attendees from the USA. It turned out that several of them had come through Toastmasters and this helped me create an immediate bond with people half-way around the world!
Membership at Toastmasters has helped me become much more open to telling my stories. As an introvert, I’d often take a back seat in communication, allowing more lively, extroverted types to dominate. One of the amazing things about public speaking is that the speaker has an opportunity to tell their own story with no interruptions and with as much preparation as we care to make. I loved the way that people who were often the quieter types would open up and share moving aspects of their lives. During my early speeches at Toastmasters I played it safe, often electing to make humorous speeches and to use regional accents and drama to deflect from being vulnerable.
Eventually, it was one of my fellow club members who had watched one of my competition speeches, about a dear family member, and suggested that it would be more moving if I allowed the façade to crack and showed more emotion. This was a real hurdle for me m. Every time I practised this particular speech at home, I would shed a tear or two, and yet I managed to push the emotion to one side during my speeches at the club and area levels. It wasn’t until I made the speech during our Division Contest that I was able to show the emotion I was feeling, but in a manner that was controlled enough that I could get through the entire speech without breaking down!
Going through that process gave me an amazing amount of confidence. I had always appreciated the emotional vulnerability of others when they were speaking, but had never allowed myself to go there too. Toastmasters gave me the ability to be vulnerable in a safe space, and now I feel so much more fearless as a speaker.
Now, putting it out into the real world, just two and a half years after joining Toastmasters, I help coach women in business to become better speakers, using a combination of my training as a professional singer with my speaking experience, much of which has been gained from Toastmasters.
The public speaking book I self-published was a bestseller on Amazon.com and on the strength of that I’ve been asked to speak at an event run by Marie Claire and have written articles that have appeared in several publications including The Metro and Marie Claire online.
I was accepted as an associate trainer at one of the UK’s largest public speaking charities. I know that it was my experience doing Table Topics that helped me get through their tough assessment day! And I’ve created two online speaking courses.
I’ve also worked with victims of human trafficking, helping them develop their presentation skills. And I have made a number of paid professional speeches and intend to do more. I want to create keynote speeches that combine the emotional power of singing with an inspirational spoken message, and perform them at large events – watch this space!
When I took my seat that day, as a timid Toastmasters’ guest, I could never have imagined how much it would change my life.
Thank you Toastmasters!