Breaking the Ice

When I was four years old, I was supposed to get up on stage as part of a choir at the Christmas pageant at my elementary school. All I can remember is seeing the crowd and running off the stage, crying. For years, the thought of getting up on stage scared the crap out of me. I found ways out of being part of any further plays, concerts or speeches until high school. The only time I had to get up in front of anyone after that, was for an awards ceremony in 11th grade, and I shook like a leaf the whole time. I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest, and run off the stage on its own.

But a few years ago, I started noticing I had fewer problems getting up to give speeches. I still wasn’t completely comfortable, but the thought didn’t paralyze me quite so badly. I gave one at my wedding reception for about a hundred people, and someone asked me afterwards if I had ever thought about going into politics. Apparently, they thought I did a good job.

One of my career goals for writing, is to be a keynote speaker at a large authors’ convention. To me, that would be a sign that I’ve made it as a writer. But I knew that for me to get up in front of a large, professional organization, I needed to start smaller, and to have the opportunity to practice that craft, just like I’ve practiced writing over these last few years, but in a low-risk environment.

I had tossed around the idea of joining Toastmasters a couple of times in the past years, but it wasn’t until my agent, Sally Harding, recommended that I get used to doing things like readings and talks prior to the release of my first novel, that I actually decided to to it. Then I had to wait until I was healthy enough to be able to go to the meetings, to start.

About a month ago, I attended my first weekly meeting for the local Toastmasters Club. Toastmasters is a great organization for overcoming that fear of speaking in public, and for learning how to prepare for those speeches. It’s been around for almost ninety years, and there are chapters in just about every part of the world.

Today, I gave my first speech (the Icebreaker Speech)—a six minute (and five second) talk about my Guillain-Barre Syndrome. I was a little nervous at the start, but I think it went pretty well. I’d practiced it about ten times in front of my webcam over the last two weeks. The topic was quite personal, so I had no worries about forgetting it. I worried about rushing it, or going over on time more than anything else. There were a few butterflies, and my palms were a tad sweaty at the start, but nowhere near the panic attacks I used to get as a kid. I’d actually got up a couple of times over the past few weeks for things called table topics, and the first time I did that, I was very nervous. This time, not so bad. So even over just a few weeks, things have gotten better. One thing I did notice, is how fast the time really flies by when you’re up there, and how hard it is to focus on anything but the speech. I mean, I know there are other people in the room, and I made pretty good eye contact with them, but they almost seemed like furniture… it was just me and the speech. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. We’ll see if that changes as I become more comfortable with my public speaking.

In late January, I’m scheduled to do the second of the ten speeches that are part of the Competent Communications Program of Toastmasters. I’d like to get through all ten speeches by the end of 2013. That’s not just an arbitrary date: I hope, and expect, to be doing a lot of public speaking starting in 2014.

If you’re interested in improving your public speaking skills, I highly recommend checking out Toastmasters. It doesn’t cost much (is free for guests), and it’s already been helping me.

2 Comments on “Breaking the Ice

  1. Good for you!

    I don’t remember if I’ve ever preached the gospel of Toastmasters at you before, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I had. I tend to do that. I did TM for about 3 years, and it’s not hyperbole to say it changed my life.

    You’re right, though. That first speech is definitely a nervous, deer-in-the-headlights experience, but they do get easier the more you do. Speech by speech, you’ll be able to handle more and more elements of performance, such as making eye contact around the room. It just takes practice, in a supportive and feedback-oriented environment.

    The hardest things for me we learning to speak more slowly, not to rush through the material, and to watch those ahs and ums. But with time, you get there.

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