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A transforming experience at Toastmasters

Harry Dhillon | 01.09.2010

Public speaking was a nightmare for Harry Dhillon. So how did he end up as President of a Toastmasters club in London?

Sometimes we're so busy chasing one dream that we don't notice an even better one, until we accidentally trip over it. It was never my dream to be a leader of a public speaking group. In fact, public speaking had always felt more like a nightmare. But as I find myself the President of the Trojan Speakers club in London, I can only be amused at how I got here.

The story begins 3 years ago. In a fleeting moment of confidence, I had decided to visit the local Toastmasters group as a guest. I sat there in a room with about 25 others, listening in awe to the great speeches being presented. While I was busy making myself feel inadequate, the Toastmaster announced that he would like all guests to come on the stage and introduce themselves.

A massive wave of fear washed over me. A part of me felt like leaving the room, but a part of me knew that if I did, I could never return. I braved the next few moments where, in a state of numbness, I made my way to the stage and mumbled something about having lots of fear of public speaking. Once I had returned to my chair, and the shaking had stopped, I knew I wanted to do more of this and signed up right away. It's strange how our greatest fears can also be the source of exhilaration once we choose to face up to them.

A few weeks later, I was about to deliver my 'Ice Breaker' speech - the first prepared speech where a new member introduces themselves to the club. But on the morning of the meeting, the shakes and shivers told me I wasn't ready. I rang the Toastmaster for the meeting, and made a feeble excuse. With my tail firmly between my legs, I questioned whether I was the right type of person to even attend such meetings. How could I, a bumbling stammerer, even think about entering the Toastmasters arena of eloquence? But something inside me said I needed to do this. I had accumulated enough regrets to last me a lifetime, and I didn't want this to become another one. A few weeks passed, and I attempted my speech again, and it came out extremely well. I got praise and constructive recommendations from the others, and I knew in my heart I had opened, ever so slightly, the doorway to something new.

Talking off the cuff

As well as prepared speeches, Toastmasters encourages impromptu speaking with something called Table Topics, where people are chosen at random from the audience, given a subject, and asked to speak on it for between one and two minutes.

Sometimes, progress doesn't come in a straight line. Petrified at the thought of being picked, I spent the next few months not attending the meetings and making excuses in my own mind. After my 'high' of the Ice Breaker speech, I had regressed seriously. That opened doorway was beginning to shut on me again.

The crippling phobia had been replaced by manageable nerves, and public speaking was becoming enjoyable.

Fortunately, noticing my absence, I had a gentle phone call from the President, and with his encouragement, I tentatively made my way back. And then, one week, he asked me to be on the committee for the next year. "You just have to help set up the chairs" he said. I knew that my stammer couldn't hinder me in that, and I agreed. But he knew something that I did not at the time. Being on the committee changes something mentally. It gives us a greater sense of belonging and duty. I now felt an increased compulsion to attend, and to be more active in the club. I even started doing Table Topics, although very nervously. The key to success, the self-help books proclaim, is to reward yourself for small achievements. And Toastmasters does that with awarding a 'Best Table Topics' ribbon at each meeting. A full 18 months after joining, I won my first such ribbon. It's amusing how a small, humble looking ribbon, can bring such joy to a grown man.

Reading horror

Since the horrors of having to read out loud in my school days, I had developed a crippling phobia of reading in public. Having just about come to terms with doing Table Topics, I was confronted with another fear. It's customary for someone to read out the Toastmasters mission statement at the start of every meeting, and I knew that sooner or later, the law of averages would get the Toastmaster pointing to me. And one day he did. I shook, and stuttered, and sweated as I fumbled my way through a single, but painful sentence.

A dormant enemy had awakened. As an opponent, a stammer is like a dirty street fighter. It doesn?t obey the rules. It didn?t sympathise with my long penance of public speaking, and in that single reading episode, it had dealt me a heavy blow. I was beaten, but I knew that the time would come, when I would gain the resources needed to stand up against the reading monster.

Don't under-estimate yourself

I had never dreamt of winning awards or competitions for public speaking. I went to Toastmasters to help me cope with general speaking situations. But my third speech, about stammering, changed everything. I was 'evaluated' by a powerful speaker who gave me an honest appraisal, and said "Young man, you need to start believing in yourself". Somehow, that sentence struck a chord. And that evening, I won the 'Best Speaker' award for the first time. Propelled by this success, I entered a Humorous Speech contest, and a Table Topics contest, coming second place in both.

By now, two years had passed, and I was finding my place in the club. I was feeling less embarrassed by my stammer in front of the other members, and I was taking on other speaking roles. I was regularly attending our fortnightly meetings, and anxiety was being replaced by adrenalin.

Earlier this year, I entered the Speech Contest and the Evaluation Contest at our club. (In the Evaluation Contest one is judged on how well one evaluates another speaker.) Having won both, I had to then compete at the next level up. This meant a different venue, a bigger audience, and a much higher standard. The nerves were present, and so was the excitement. At times, I even entertained thoughts of winning at this level. But far greater competence was on display, and I was content to come second place in both forms of the contest. I had learnt so much, and changed considerably as a result of the contests. My beliefs and thoughts about public speaking were changing. The crippling phobia had been replaced by manageable nerves, and public speaking was becoming enjoyable. And I was starting to confront my reading phobia by practising before friends in smaller groups, and using NLP techniques like 'anchoring'.

Now firmly established as one of the core members of the club, I was asked by the then President to be his successor. Of course, this was a complete shock, and my immediate response was "Thank you, but I don't think I'd project the right image for the club". After all, I thought to myself, how can a person with an overt stammer, with severe blocks, be a President of a public speaking group? Surely, it's a contradiction. And it might lose credibility for the club.

It's odd how we sometimes convince ourselves of what reality is, based on our biased perceptions. I spoke to some of the other members in the club, and they told me that having a person who stammers as a President would actually be good for the club, as it would highlight what is possible through perseverance. And with that shift in perception, my reality changed.
'Just do it'

Toastmasters is far more than public speaking. In my view, it's a personal development programme that improves confidence, self-esteem, interpersonal and leadership skills. It allows people to grow at a speed with which they feel comfortable. As someone who stammers I was concerned about whether I would fit in, but in my three years I have received acceptance and understanding that is truly touching. Of course, there is a competitive side too, if one wants it, but even the competitions are executed in a mutually supportive manner, bereft of the cut and thrust that one would associate with such events. In reality, most people come to compete not with others, but to compete with the negative thoughts that reside in their minds.

As President of the club, I have to not only speak more, I have to learn skills to motivate and inspire others to come together as a team. I have to learn the arts of diplomacy, rapport-building and problem-solving. I had never thought of myself as a leader, but have come to realise that we are all leaders. And followers. At times we lead others, and at times we follow, and this shifting between the two occurs on a daily basis. I realise that I may forever have a stammer, but Toastmasters has empowered me to take on greater challenges in my life, and find internal resources I didn't know existed. My advice, therefore, to anyone considering joining Toastmasters, is to just 'do it'.

From Speaking Out Autumn 2010, p.10