By Jackie Sandquist
I first checked out Toastmasters after I gave a couple of presentations at work. When I was asked in 2010 to present at a managers meeting about how I had led my team in a fundraising campaign, I was nervous about standing up in front of two hundred of my peers. I wrote down some notes and thought about what I was going to say, but when I got up on the stage I simply rushed through my presentation. At the end, I cocked my head slightly to the left, smiled, and said, “And that’s what I did!” I knew I’d blown it, but of course my coworkers were nice to a fault. “Good job!” they said. This is Portland, and we all know how to do nice. I wanted to forget about the whole thing, and I vowed never to get anywhere near a stage or a microphone again.
A few months later I was asked to present at a conference on collaboration between businesses and community colleges. Once again, after thinking about what to say, I got up on stage, rushed through my speech and finished with – you guessed it – “And that’s what I did!”, little head cock and all. I knew that I’d come across as hopelessly unpolished, even cutesy. One audience member said I was “adorable.” Not what a professional wants to hear at a conference of business and academic leaders from all over the Pacific Northwest.
Friends had told me about Toastmasters over the years. I had even been encouraged to give the group a try, but until those two experiences, I was never willing to see how my limitations in public speaking got in the way of being taken seriously in my job. By the end of that second presentation, though, I knew I was going to hit a hard and unforgiving ceiling unless I learned how to speak in front of large audiences.
I started researching Toastmasters clubs and found that the Red Cross on Vancouver Avenue, right in our neighborhood, has a weekly meeting. It is open to the public and anyone can come and develop their public speaking skills, in both impromptu and rehearsed speeches. Although it’s hard to say what I’ve found most valuable about Toastmasters, the evaluations have been especially helpful. After every speech, the speaker receives immediate positive feedback from all the group members. I can now give a speech that isn’t riddled with the dreaded um’s and ah’s and so’s. I’ve learned how to summarize each presentation in a way that engages my audience and leaves them wanting to hear more. My fellow Toastmasters have told me they look forward to my speeches, and I haven’t cocked my head to the side in over a year.
But most importantly, I am learning that I have something to say to the world. Each one of us has our own unique well of stories to draw from, and Toastmasters gives us the opportunity to practice making our stories interesting and exciting. For example, I’ve enjoyed bird-watching for several years, and I recently gave a speech on spotting what we call vagrants, or single birds that are not normally in this area. I was inspired to do this speech because I have frequently felt like vagrant in my own life, but when I’m at Toastmasters I realize I am finally among a flock. We are all fledgling speakers; all migrating on our path toward our common destination: the land of “Better Public Speaking.” With each speech that I deliver, I am finding my song, my voice. I am finding my calling.
Sometime, maybe sooner than you think, someone might ask you, “Say, have you heard of Toastmasters?” Don’t ignore them, as I did for twenty years. Come on over to the Red Cross on 3131 N. Vancouver Avenue at noon on Fridays. You’ll find that you have something to say to the world, and the world needs to hear it. Your flock is waiting to help you learn to fly.