Speak to your fears

At coffee a couple weeks ago I told my friend that I joined Toastmasters. She laughed and said: “Wasn’t that a thing in the 80s?”

I don’t know – the 80s was a bit of blur for me. But I think it’s been a “thing” for a little longer than that, and I think it still is a “thing.”

Toastmasters is a non-profit organization originally founded in 1924 to help people improve their public speaking skills. Currently there are clubs in 113 different countries with over 260,000 members. I am one of its newer members.

The first time I heard about Toastmasters was when I was a child back in the 70s. My Uncle Jack was a gregarious man who loved to be the center of attention delivering award-winning speeches at Toastmaster competitions around North America.

My father, a shy man who flew under the radar for the most part, was invited by my uncle to join. Reluctantly, my dad attended a meeting and immediately saw how beneficial becoming a member would be for him professionally and personally.

The same year he joined, my quiet, unassuming father surprised us all when he emceed his big company Christmas party. I remember being in awe of him up on stage telling jokes, looking so happy and comfortable.

Being insecure and shy myself, I managed to avoid public speaking completely until I joined a business group called Okanagan Business Excellence seven years ago. Every Wednesday morning I would wake up ridden with anxiety as I anticipated that dreaded moment when all eyes would be on me and I’d have to say something.

I asked my dad for advice on getting rid of my nerves.

“Don’t worry about trying to get rid of them,” he said. “Being nervous just means you care.”

It wasn’t exactly the quick fix I was looking for, so I asked the chairperson of our group, a lawyer named Paul Hergott. He was as gregarious and entertaining as my Uncle Jack, so surely he would tell me what I was looking for.

He didn’t. Paul claimed he could barely say his own name the first time he had to present in court and it was just a matter of facing his fear and doing it anyway, over and over again.

I figured if he and my father were able to make such impressive strides in their public speaking skills, there might be hope for me yet.

Four years ago I finally went to my first Toastmasters meeting. I really wanted to join, but I didn’t. Why? Because I was intimidated by the phenomenal speakers I heard that night, and I was scared I’d look and sound like a bumbling fool. I also decided that I didn’t have the time. Well, I wish I had made the time.

What I didn’t realize then was that the meetings aren’t mandatory and the program is self paced. I also didn’t grasp how supportive and non-threatening the environment truly is. Luckily that sunk in this summer and I faced my fears, became a member and am now loving the experience.

Toastmasters is designed to improve skills not just in speaking, but in leadership, communication, storytelling, grammar, time management, and overall self confidence. There is no instructor and there are no lectures. Instead, members evaluate one another’s presentations, offering encouragement as well as constructive critiques called “gifts.” Even the most accomplished presenters are given gifts and welcome them because they are essential to improving.

I encourage everyone, shy or gregarious, to check out a Toastmasters meeting. They are all over the world and being a member will enable you to visit other clubs whenever you wish. To find one that suits you, visit Toastmasters.org

Toastmasters truly is the best and least expensive personal improvement “thing” you can imagine. It also serves coffee. Cookies too.

Lori Welbourne is a syndicated columnist. She can be contacted at loriwelbourne.com 

Singing down fear

My eight year old daughter did something recently that I’ve never done in my life: she sang all alone on stage.

Over the years there’s been the rare occasion I’ve been too intoxicated to fend off friends who dragged me up to sing karaoke or mortify some local band by joining in. But never have I deliberately walked out to sing a real song in front of a real audience all by myself, like Daisy did. If I ever had the inclination to do so, I can’t imagine I’d even have the strength.

Singing is hard work. When I’m belting out lyrics from the comfort of my little orange Beetle I feel like the wind’s been knocked out of me before I even hit the chorus if I’m trying to sing in-tune. Should I just crank up the volume of the stereo to cover up the fact that I’m way off-key? Yep, that helps. I sound terrific then.

I’ve heard that public speaking is the number one fear for a lot of people, but I’m guessing that if I took a poll, most people would rather do that than sing in public. And anyone who wouldn’t must have better pipes than me.

My daughter certainly does.

She’s been singing since she was a toddler. She often falls asleep with headphones on singing away to Miley Cyrus, Fergie or LMFAO, so when I suggested she take singing lessons to accompany her guitar lessons I thought she’d be all over it. She wasn’t.

“But, Mama,” she protested. “I don’t want anyone to hear me.”

After I explained that only Terilyn Spooner, her guitar teacher, would be hearing her, she agreed. Neither of us had any idea that only two short months later she’d be singing solo in a Christmas concert. I didn’t even know until that very night because she had kept it her own fearful secret.

When Daisy walked out on the stage by herself she looked really nervous. The music started and she softly sang into the microphone looking out at the crowd, and then she promptly forgot the words and froze like a deer in the headlights. Terilyn stopped the music and asked if she wanted to start over. I wasn’t sure how she’d react, but she started singing again and finished the entire song.

She didn’t belt it out like she would have done at home, and she didn’t dance around like she normally would either. She stood still, arms crossed, looking terrified and quietly singing. As soon as the song ended she bolted across the stage and down the stairs to take a seat in the audience, only to be called back up 10 minutes later to sing the duet that I did know about.

Later she cried from a pounding headache and an aching tummy. But after a good talk she seemed to appreciate her wonderful accomplishment.

She faced her fear and she conquered it. And in the process she did something her parents and big brother have never had the courage to do: she sang on stage all alone in front of an audience. She now knows that if she can do that, she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.

To watch the video that accompanies this column please visit LoriWelbourne.com