Working on the Fundamentals

Last week, I decided to re-join Toastmasters. Back in high school, I took public speaking, did drama club, school plays, etc. After college, I joined a Toastmasters group at work, and went through the full program to become a CTM (Competent Toastmaster). I even competed

Working on the fundamentalsin a club-level and area speech contest. I got to be known as someone who can deliver presentations well, and is very comfortable speaking in front of a group. I’ve even dabbled as a stand-up comic, having performed on stage at Stand-Up New York, Riot Act Comedy Theater and the DC Improv. Before you get impressed, I didn’t get PAID to do that, I took classes, did open mics and generally hung around the right group of people to get on stage. Let’s just say it’s a hobby.

That being said, I’ve got some good basic speaking skills, that are likely more than enough to do what I need to do on my job and any other times I might have to get up in front of a group. So why go back and start over?

Several reasons – First, I like doing it. Really, I do. It’s been said that people have a greater fear of public speaking than they do of dying. Jerry Seinfeld added that most people would rather be the guy IN the casket, than the one doing the eulogy. Do I get nervous? Of course I do. Some times it’s really tough to get up in front of a group, especially if I feel like there’s something at stake. But from my experience, 90% of that is in my head…and it goes away as soon as I walk out and start talking. In stand-up, I’ve described it as ice skating – it looks intimidating, but once you get that first laugh and ‘push’ off the wall, you just glide. Sure, sometimes you fall and bump your rear end….but most of the time, it just gets you to want to come back out and do it again.

Second, I want to get better. I’ve got a certain level of skill already…but you get better by practicing the fundamentals. That’s why Toastmasters is such a good learning experience for new as well as ‘seasoned’ speakers. There are certain formalities and rituals that go into each meeting and speech, each speaker gets feedback on their performance, and there’s an opportunity to practice speaking off the cuff in Table Topics. Doing these seemingly basic skills repeatedly over time makes you better. You might not see the difference from week to week, but over time, it works.

Third, I want to help others get better. As a parent, few things make me more proud than seeing my kids go from their first nervous attempts at a new skill to mastering it. When my son was very young, he had a lot of difficulty learning to ride a bike. We were even told by a pediatrician that he ‘just didn’t have the ability to balance properly’. Well, being the stubborn guy that I am, I set out to prove that ‘balance’ didn’t matter nearly as much as skill and training. I read up on how bikes actually stay up (something about falling forward and gyroscopic forces), and immediately went home and took off the training wheels, which were preventing him from learning to ride. It took all of one summer, and part of the next…but by the time he was 7, he was riding with no problem. He went on to get his Cycling merit badge in Scouting, and has ridden 3 Century (100 mile) rides with me. I think that pediatrician might have been wrong.

The same goes for helping new speakers get better. I’ve been where they’ve been. I’ve fumbled over words, forgot what I was going to say, ran out of time, or only used half of it because I was going so fast. As I help them learn by giving feedback, I’m also learning myself, because I can look back and remember what I was going through.

So, to get better and reach that next level, I’m going back to the beginning of the Toastmasters program, and starting with my Icebreaker speech. Each time I work on a new skill, I’ll be building on previous skills, improving with feedback from others, and just getting up there and doing it – which is really the only way to get comfortable with speaking. Will I still get nervous? Every time. That just tells me that I’m alive, and that this is important. Which is a good thing.

One more thing – if you haven’t seen Speak yet, get it on iTunes and watch it. It highlights the Toastmasters International Speaking Contest, and follows several of the competitors as they prepare to compete against the best of the best. It’s a fascinating little movie.

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