by Deirdre McCabe
It is about 10 years ago that I first joined the public speaking club Toastmasters. At the time I couldn’t believe that I had signed up... so much so that then I did a disappearing act and didn’t return to the club for 3 months. Typical avoidance behaviour from a stammerer!
After my short break, I returned to Toastmasters and I stayed for many years. I did my first speech soon afterwards.
Toastmasters is an international public speaking organisation founded in America in the 1920’s by Ralph Smedley, who saw the need for people to learn interpersonal, communication and leadership skills. Now 100 years on, there are about 1600 Toastmasters clubs worldwide. There are 125 clubs in Ireland, and 25 in Dublin. Usually a Toastmasters club holds 2 meetings a month, and the meetings are 2 hours long. The first hour is impromptu speaking called Table Topics while the second hour is prepared speeches and feedback
Table topics: A table topic is a question which you are asked on the spot which you don’t know in advance, and you have up to 2 minutes to speak on that topic before the room. You can get an easy one like ‘what’s your favourite movie?’ or something harder such as being asked to do a role play. It sounds terrifying, and it is! But it’s also fun, and a good way to learn. Being able to think on your feet is an important skill to have in any conversation. Being able to handle unexpected questions is also great for an interview situation.
Speeches: The prepared speeches are speeches that members have written in advance, normally about 5 to 7 minutes long. The speeches can be about any subject, personal stories, history or an area of interest. Speeches are done based on manuals or an online education programme. Members can also do speeches to prepare for occasions such as best man speeches, or presentations. Last year I was studying part time and I had to do a college presentation. I got a chance to practice part of my presentation at Toastmasters. I was happy with how the actual presentation went, and I know I could not have done it without practicing at Toastmasters first.
Feedback: After doing a speech, each speaker gets spoken and written feedback. It’s always very supportive and encouraging. I’ve always kept my speech feedback forms. People were always so positive. They were picking up on the things that I was doing right such as smiling and eye contact, or the speech being funny or interesting. As a stammerer I always focused on the speech blocks and things going wrong. But I was also getting things right, and Toastmasters has let me see that how the words come out (or how the words do not come out) are only part of the public speaking picture.
Roles: As well as speeches, Toastmasters also has speaking opportunities called roles. A small role which is good if you’re starting out is the Timer, who records the times of the speeches and then reports back to the room. There are other roles such as speech evaluators and the general evaluator,where you learn to listen to other people and to give them constructive feedback. Toastmasters is about listening skills, as well as speaking. The Toastmaster role is like the master of ceremonies. You learn how to chair a meeting. This role can be challenging, but I always found that I spoke more confidently the next day after doing this role
What I got from Toastmasters: I kept on going to Toastmasters mainly because I liked the friendly and sociable people I met at the club. I really enjoyed the meetings. There’s always something new to learn from the speeches on wide ranging subjects. And there was always something fun happening and lots of laughs.
As a person who stammers, Toastmasters has been very helpful for 2 reasons.
1.Doing speeches and speaking roles has given me positive experiences of public speaking in a friendly and supportive environment. And I have those experiences, to call upon any time I have bad days with my speech. I know that I can speak well, and that it is not all bad.
2. I’ve also seen that fluent speakers are very afraid of public speaking too. Once a very outgoing lady spoke to me before her first speech. She held out her arm, and she was literally shaking. Another more extreme time I saw someone run out of a room before a speech. Luckily, she came back, and she did that speech and many other great speeches after that. Fear of public speaking exists in people who stammer and people who don’t
To sum up, my advice to anybody interested in Toastmasters is just to go along. I suggest looking around to find a club you like. Guests are always welcome to attend any Toastmasters club and they do not have to speak. And whether you join a club or not, it is an entertaining evening.
Note that many clubs are meeting online via Zoom during the coronavirus situation.
For more details see https://www.toastmasters.org/Find-a-Club
People who stammer are individuals. We all have our own thoughts about stammering, and we have all had our own unique experiences of being a person who stammers.