The Toastmaster’s Apprentice

‘Toastmasters’ is an international club that was first established in 1924, designed to create competent and confident communicators. It currently has over 270,000 members and 13,000 clubs worldwide. The Asian Development Bank in Manila has its own Toastmasters club which is open to all ADB employees and their spouses. The club began well over ten years ago, since when there have been almost 650 meetings. Its mission statement claims to ‘promote personal growth by providing a mutually supportive learning environment in developing leadership and communication skills.’

When I first joined  Toastmasters, I was encouraged to attend the club meetings regularly. Then, as soon as I felt ready, I could prepare my first short speech, an icebreaker, to be presented to the other members. Participants also have the opportunity to give impromptu mini-talks (Table Topics), develop skills in timekeeping, grammar and language analysis, conduct meetings and learn about parliamentary procedure. Thus the experience we gain in public speaking can develop into leadership development.

There is no instructor at a Toastmasters meeting. Instead, members evaluate each other’s presentations and provide feedback. Current chairperson Marissa Wenceslao suggests the KKK or ‘Kiss, Kick, Kiss’ method of constructive evaluation, although her ‘Kicks’ are generally too gentle to bruise even the thinnest skin.

Toastmasters gives you the skills and the confidence to rise to any occasion, be it as Master of Ceremonies at your sister’s wedding, to simply voicing an opinion at a staff meeting. Recently one member tagged us with the title: ‘the club where winners are made’ due to the number of awards our members have been collecting in various Toastmasters’ competitions. We are such a talented bunch!

I first heard about Toastmasters from the spouse liaison when we had just arrived in Manila. At the time, inundated with information and opportunities, I put the pamphlet at the back of my desk. Six months later I had cause to go looking for it again. I had just presented a paper at the 2011 Gastronomic Symposium in Canberra, and had rediscovered the sheer terror I felt about standing in front of a room full of my peers. Give me a group around a dinner table and I am perfectly at ease, but a podium and a large audience? Help!

I watched several more practiced speakers, including my friend Tammi, smiling confidently through their respective papers, barely looking at their notes, never struggling for words or hiccupping on ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’. Dry mouthed and shaking, I took my turn, and thanked God for a reasonable Power Point presentation, that gave the audience something other than me to look at. Nonetheless, I was still incredibly wary of taking my eyes from my notes. As for smiling, I couldn’t have managed even a quick grin if my life had depended on it.

So I came home to Manila, rummaged in my desk, and rang Angel. Please could I join up? I needed a sponsor, apparently, but she was happy to be mine, and so the following Wednesday I stepped bravely into the meeting. I started gently during the following weeks with a couple of simple table topic speeches. These impromptu presentations are based on a moral or life philosophy picked from a hat. Topics may include such wisdoms as:

Always be yourself, because the people that matter won’t mind and the ones that mind, don’t matter.

With only 30 seconds to prepare, and no more than three minutes speaking time, the Table Topics are short and sweet, but they help build confidence to face that first ‘proper’ speech.

When I took the plunge at last, I again found my mouth dry and my hands shaking. Seven minutes seemed to last a lifetime, but I did it. And I have done five more speeches since. Each time it gets a little easier, and the support and encouragement of the club is invaluable. I am hoping that by the time I attend another Symposium I will have completed the basic training of ten speeches and be as breezily confident as my friend Tammi, will no longer um and ah and will at last be able to find a smile for my audience.

making speeches can be challenging, but it is also fun, and it is fascinating to learn about other people’s interests and experiences. Toastmasters has also proved to be a very different way to make some interesting new friends.

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