By Warren Sheng, Harrovians Speakers Club, DivL Area61
I joined Harrovian Speakers Club in February 2006 because Toastmasters had been recommended in a careers book for women that I had read. (It was “Nice girls don’t get the corner office”. And what’s wrong with being a man but reading a careers book for women?!)
My reason for joining—and for remaining as a Toastmaster for so long—was not because I needed to do speeches at work but because it was a way to make new friends. As 20% of my friends are Toastmasters, this remains a valid reason to join.
Let me summarise my journey. Firstly, I have attended nearly every meeting except if I was on holiday. This is called getting value for money. Secondly, I have served in most roles including VPE, President, backup SAA, Treasurer, Area Director. Thirdly, instead of spending 13 years in just one club, I have also been a happy member of Tube Talk and London Business School. I am making slow motion progress towards my DTM award. Fourthly, I have entered speech contests at every opportunity except when I was Area Director. For some reason, you can trust an Area Director to oversee 4 clubs but you cannot trust him to enter a speech contest! My icebreaker speech in March 2006 was about my then recent working visit to Shanghai. I rehearsed this speech 40 times (a sign of dedication and madness). This was several more times than any other contestant. I duly won but I was disqualified as it was my icebreaker.
My greatest win was runner up in the 2017 District 91 Humorous Speech contest. Although I enjoyed this speech, it was tiring delivering it around 20 times, each with subtle changes. You can see the Division and District contest versions on YouTube, by searching for “Warren Sheng”.
What have been the benefits and pitfalls?
Benefits: I am a better speaker and evaluator. I have developed my dry humour. After around 1,000 meeting hours, it would have been hard not to improve.
I have gained many friends and enjoyed many speeches. I am more confident and I cannot remember accidentally saying “er” at a Toastmaster meeting since 2009. (The only exception was when I did a humorous speech about how to erm more effectively and in different languages.)
When completing application forms that require one to demonstrate good communication skills, I just state that I have won 12 speech contests. This is better than stating “I am a really good communicator…”
I have enjoyed Toastmaster meetings in other parts of London, and also San Francisco, Shanghai and Taipei, where I was the recent VIP speaker, doing a workshop on humour.
I have also photographed some Toastmaster events and will be photographing the District Conference in May. (Photography is my other passion. It’s also a form of communication, but without words.)
Pitfalls: Some speeches and meetings have been disappointing because the speakers made fundamental, avoidable errors including a failure to prepare. Some of my evaluations, which have many recommendations, have not been appreciated. Some of the audience hated what I said, even though I believed my comments to have been truthful and helpful. Toastmasters is sometimes too nice. And I prefer to be not too nice. I would rather be remembered than loved. I would rather be unpopular for speaking the truth than popular for using more flattery than is healthy. Sometimes, we need to hear the horrible truth “It would be good if you repeated this speech…” Nearly all speeches improve after feedback and changes. Very few speeches are delivered as a one-off speech. Martin Luther King’s celebrated “I have a dream” speech was given several times in slightly different versions.
Nevertheless, overall I am happy that I am a Toastmaster. It’s a place where I can meet people less than half my age (I am an ancient 59 years old) and people from very different walks of life including a rabbi, an ambassador, Muslims and Hindus. These encounters and friendships remain my most important reason for being a Toastmaster.