What Toastmasters did for me
By Gary Lee Webb
I have been in Waco 21 years. Before that, I had never heard about Toastmasters International; although, I did participate in some speaking organizations back in high school (Model UN while in California and the Arizona Model Legislature) and thought I was a great speaker.
It was not until a demonstration of Toastmasters at my work in 2007 that I learned about the organization. It reminded me of the fun I had in high school, and one can always improve their communication skills, so I joined.
I quickly learned that I was only good, not great. I had a long way to go. But Toastmasters has taken me from being a good speaker to extremely good, top decile in the world. I learned to use my voice to its full capacity — pitch and intonation, speed and cadence, how to moderate to best effect, when to stage whisper across a room. I improved my use of gestures and movement across the speaking area. I learned rhetorical devices, assonance and alliteration, and even the use of unusual techniques such as the paraprosdokian twist. After all, the voice is the sharpest scalpel within the surgeon’s kit of speaking. If you use it well, people will be intrigued and you can paint pictures.
I also went from being a horrible humorist to someone who can occasionally win a humor contest. That is something I must still improve, but at least people do not stampede the door, exiting when I tell a joke.
I learned to think quickly on my feet, replying in one to two minutes to off-the-wall questions. In Toastmasters, we not only practice prepared speaking but also impromptu speaking at every meeting. We call it “Table Topics.” A predesignated Table Topics Master queries random people with questions he prepared earlier. Getting good at answering is a very useful skill for job interviews or a quick proposal to one’s boss.
Something else we practice at meetings is the art of constructive criticism: nicely telling a speaker where they can improve and how to do so, in a way that encourages him to take your advice. After all, our goal is to help every speaker to become better. Leaders should know how to evaluate others, whether they supervise paid employees or a group of volunteers.
We also teach leadership skills, much to my personal benefit. When I joined Toastmasters, I was happy to take a supportive role, assisting the leadership team, but never the lead role. Now I have learned to take the reins, if necessary. Thrice within the last 12 years, I have taken on one-year terms as Area or Division Governor or Director (titles have changed).
Finally, we learn to guide, teach, and train. Every new member gets a mentor to guide them, and when they have become experienced we hope they will do the same. I have mentored three-dozen new members, assisting them to become better speakers and leaders. Some of them have hit heights I have never reached – what better result can any teacher expect? I have also taught the speechcraft seminar sixteen times: eleven weeks on speaking basics. More advanced skills as well. And I have led officer training for multiple leaders and even organized the event held at Baylor University, August 2014: ten trainers, twelve classes, training sixty chapter officers.
In short, Toastmasters International has enriched my life and improved my skills. What can it do for you?
Gary Lee Webb is the grandfather of two (age 9 and 7), a long-time member of Toastmasters International and the National Storytelling Network, and the author of 17 published short stories. He is also a world traveler (having lived on three continents), an astronomer, and a software engineer. Currently, he is vice president of education for three Waco public Toastmaster chapters and can be reached at GaryLeeWebbTM@gmail.com.
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