Saturday, April 26, 2008

First Toastmasters Speech

I presented my first speech at Toastmasters this past week. It's the icebreaker, and the topic should be a familiar one. The handbook suggests a speech about you. It helps club members know you better, and makes preparation easy.

I wrote my speech out - once, twice, three times. I practiced it in front of a mirror at home, timing myself to get an idea about the pace. I presented it in the car on the way into work. I felt ready on Tuesday.

I've always liked public speaking. I got over my fear early. My high school required two years of public speaking, so I had to take classes in my freshman and junior years. Both were taught by a rough and tumble man who was an assistant coach on the football team. He was a terrific speaker who knew how to prepare us well, but he wasn't above mixing it up with students who were unruly.

I had no problems in my freshman year. That was a time of "tracking", so I was in the highest track with a lot of students who were similarly serious minded. However, there was a scheduling conflict in my junior year, so the only section I could get was a class loaded with football players who were anxious for a shot at their coach. I learned to have no fear of the crowd there. I got to the point where I'd prepare on the way to the podium. My measure of success was how well I quieted the class. I began to think of myself as a pretty good speaker.

During my working career I had a few opportunities to speak. I had to present a paper to a large audience at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The room was full when I explained my doctoral dissertation at a company conference. But I didn't get much practice or additional instruction. One day my boss decided to send me to a week-long class on public speaking. I was miffed when I heard it. Me? I don't need any help. I'm already a master! But I went anyway, and I was glad that I did. We were filmed during our presentations. I found it painful to see and hear myself. I learned a few good things from that class. The most important lesson was that I still had a very long way to go to be a good speaker.

All this went through my mind as I strode to the podium on Tuesday. I took a deep breath before starting. I could feel my voice shaking when I began to speak, but I remained calm and got into the rhythm of it. I had a problem with timing. The speech was supposed to be 4-6 minutes long. The red flag went up before I was ready to wrap things up. I didn't prepare enough; I'll have to spend more time on my next effort.

The club had an invited speaker join us: Douglas C. Comstock. He won the speech and tall tales contests at a recent regional competition, and he was gracious enough to come in and give his prize winning speech to us. I was knocked out by his skill. This is a man who knows how to imagine, prepare, and present a topic. He even had an encore: he had prepared a second speech for possible presentation in the next round, and he asked us to give him feedback on it. It was an emotional talk about the death of a beloved brother-in-law that had me choking up as I listened.

I was amazed by the feedback that the club gave. Even someone as talented as Doug Comstock was soliciting and receiving excellent comments. The suggestions were not fan boy fawning, either. Praise and encouragement were mixed in with points that were objective and pointed.

I got some great feedback from my reviewer. I have a very long way to go to become Doug Comstock. But I'm already thinking about a second speech. I sent an e-mail to the club president to ask how frequently people make speeches. Would I be hogging the podium if I gave four speeches this year? He said I should go for it. I'm going to start writing that second speech soon. I'd love to get 4-6 under my belt this year.

I'd like to ask Doug some questions. How often does he speak? Does he do this for a living or a hobby? What is the inspiration for his speeches? How does he prepare? He provided an e-mail address. Perhaps I'll send those questions along and see how he responds.

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