Jerry Seinfeld once quipped “if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” For most of us, that’s no joke. Fear of public speaking is America’s biggest phobia, bigger than their fear of death.* And this isn’t a new condition. Some of history’s greatest speakers were terrified of speaking in public (one to the point of suffering panic attacks). Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln all found a way to overcome their fear and inspire the world. One of the best and most successful programs available to tame the fear of public speaking is Toastmasters. But there are a lot of myths floating around out there about Toastmasters. These misconceptions prevent people from joining Toastmasters and conquering their fear. So what exactly is a “Toastmaster” and what do they do? You’re about to find out.
Myth #1 – Toastmasters is a place where professional speakers get together, eat, drink, and toast each other. Actually, no. Toastmaster members are just like you and me, business people. They range from business owners and engineers to sales reps and secretaries. Some are native English speakers and for some, English is their second language. In our daily lives, we constantly run into situations where good communication skills are vital:
- Speaking up in company meetings
- Presenting a proposal
- Conducting a training seminar
- Meeting one-on-one with your boss or co-workers
- Chatting at an event or party
- And yes…occasionally giving a public speech
It’s important to speak well in these situations and many others. To present your ideas, facts, and opinions in a way that makes people want to listen. In other words…to be heard.
Myth #2 – Toastmasters are natural-born speakers. I could never talk like that in front of a bunch of people. There is no such thing as a natural-born speaker. Let me repeat that. There is no such thing as a natural-born speaker. A colleague of mine gave a TedxTalk a few months ago. Just like everyone else in the audience, I was on the edge of my seat, mesmerized by every word and gesture. Afterward, several people complimented him on being a great natural speaker. They all wished they could just “get up there and talk like that”. Norman and I both knew the truth. It only took him 200 hours of writing, practice, feedback, re-writing, and more practice, practice, practice to become a “natural born speaker”. Mark Twain said it best, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech”. Toastmasters teaches you that 99% of the work presenting a successful speech comes before you ever step on stage. You’ve put the words on paper, now what? It’s not just what you say…but how you say it. In Toastmasters you learn about vocal variety including pitch, volume, cadence and…the power of a pause. How gestures and facial expressions add emphasis to main points or help your audience “see” the story you tell. A Toastmasters’ meeting is a safe place for you to learn and practice all these things. You can mess up lines, forget your closing, and think you totally blew it. But you didn’t, because every time you present a speech three things happen:
- You learn how to improve through feedback.
- You apply what you’ve learned.
- Your confidence grows.
Then you become a “natural born speaker”.
Myth #3 – I don’t know how to write great speeches. Toastmasters is for people who can write great speeches. Toastmasters teaches you as much about how to write a speech as it does about presenting a speech. It shows you how to structure a speech, from openings that hook your audience to a close that drives your message home. Do you want to entertain, persuade, inform or educate? Do you want to tell stories, making your speeches more memorable? Do you want to learn how to design a product presentation or write a fundraising speech? Toastmasters’ themed manuals offer details on how to style your writing to achieve your goals.
Myth #4 – I can never get over my fear of speaking. Yes…you can. And I’m sure of this because Toastmasters helped me and millions just like you and me get over our fear of speaking. Toastmasters is a learning environment. It’s a safe place for everyone, novice to professional, to learn and practice the skill of communicating. The meetings give you an audience for practice, and they’ve all been right where you are, terrified. They’ve all felt the trembling terror of speaking in front of a group of people. Toastmaster members are uniquely qualified to help and support you through the process because they’ve been in your shoes. Through evaluations, members offer positive and constructive observations giving you instant feedback on all aspects of your speech, from the words you use to how you deliver them.
About 20 years ago, I saw the great marketer, Seth Godin, speak. To this day, I can close my eyes and see the see him walking the stage, hear his words, and feel the excitement build through the audience. My heart said “I want to do this. To stand up and inspire people.” My brain said “Um, don’t think so.” Toastmasters taught my brain how to make my heart’s desire come true. Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa, said “To be a person is to have a story to tell.” Let Toastmasters give you the skill, the knowledge, and the courage to stand up and tell your story.
Toastmasters International has clubs across the globe. To visit a Toastmaster Club near you, visit www.toastmasters.org
Julie Davis, ACB/CL, is the VP of Public Relations for TNT Toastmasters in Addison, Texas. She is a speaker, freelance copywriter, and the R&D Manager for SCA Promotions of Dallas, TX. She competes in numerous speaking competitions, winning local, area and division contests.
*Source: Chapman University Survey on American Fears, 2014