Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a freshly minted Distinguished Toastmaster, and four years ago anyone, including myself, would have voted me Least Likely to Be. I’ve been shy all my life, and I began this project with overwhelming stage fright and a deep dread of public speaking. I’m sharing my experience because truly, if I can do this, anyone can.
Let me give a brief explanation of what a Distinguished Toastmaster, or DTM, represents. It is an award for communication and leadership offered by Toastmasters International, which is a nonpartisan, secular, nonprofit public speaking club.
You should totally join!
The DTM is like the black belt or Eagle Scout of our organization. There are lots of other awards, but this is the biggie. Fewer than one percent of everyone who joins eventually reaches this designation.
On average, it takes most people 8-10 years to complete a DTM. With careful planning and a good mentor, it can be done in two years, depending on what time of year you sign up and assuming someone will accept you as a club officer shortly after you join. The fact that I did it in three and a half years is not all that amazing by timeline; it’s really about how I was able to make such a dramatic change that quickly.
Most people aren’t all that into spending their free time confronting their terrors.
When I stood up in a group, I could barely get my mouth open. Not just my voice would shake but my entire body. I almost collapsed once after speaking for 30 seconds. I would choke up and turn purple. My heart would hammer in my chest. The tremor in my hands would last for ten or fifteen minutes after I finished, long after the lectern had been yielded to other speakers.
After two months, I told my husband I was quitting. I would feel ill from the moment I woke up each Wednesday morning. Emotionally it was easier, a couple years later, to go into my Krav Maga classes and get put into chokeholds or punched in the mouth. I HATED SPEAKING SO SO MUCH. I mean, it was awful! I couldn’t bear it.
He asked me why I would quit and reminded me that I always want to quit things right before they start working. Good point.
I couldn’t have asked for more from my club. I had no idea how fortunate I was to live within a short walk from one of the highest-performing clubs in my region. All the people I met were unfailingly sweet and welcoming to me, and I’m proud to count several of them as close friends today. Drive-two-hours-to-hang-out friends. Follow-through friends. If I’d bumbled into a different room and been assigned a different mentor, I probably wouldn’t have made it.
Things started happening in there. People responded to my speeches. They asked questions. They laughed. They remembered what I had talked about months later. They talked me into doing standup comedy. They started voting me Best Speaker. Like, a lot.
I was invited to be vice president. Nothing could have surprised me more, until a year later when I was chosen to be an area director. And THEN I was asked to apply to be a division director, and I was nominated unanimously by the selection committee, and I won a contested election.
HOW DID THIS EVEN HAPPEN?
Inside I still feel like the gawky wallflower trying to hide in the curtains.
My self-image has been all over the place in this process. I went into the room trembling, knowing myself to be shy, painfully awkward, and boring. Somehow along the way I was convinced that nobody could see my hands shaking, I looked and sounded just fine, and in fact I was... interesting and funny.
I’ve seen the same thing happen with others. A couple of times a year, someone will come in who reminds me of myself. Unfailingly they describe themselves as being terrible at speaking. They worry about how visibly nervous they look. They think they’re boring or they have nothing to say. Yet they get up there and they have this charisma that is obvious to everyone except themselves.
Evaluation is the one thing we can’t do for ourselves.
Over and over again, a guest will come to a meeting for the first time. Often, they’re willing to stand up and do a one-minute improvisational speech, part of the game we call Table Topics. Over and over again, they’ll win a ribbon, and they won't believe it. “It’s a democratic process,” I tell them. “You have to accept that everyone voted and you legitimately won.”
That’s what I like the best. I like coaxing people to see themselves as something more, showing them that, objectively, everyone else in the world sees them as interesting and worthy of their attention. I love watching a stammering, quaking wreck like myself blossom into a confident entertainer. Together we shall rid the world of boring speeches, rambling stories, terrible wedding toasts, and unproductive meetings! AH ha ha ha hahahaha!
What I was given by my friends, I happily pass on to others: the gift of being seen and being heard. In exchange I receive the infinite gift of story. Week after week, I am surprised, delighted, informed, entertained, and often moved to tears by stories I wouldn’t hear anywhere else. It’s taught me that even the most ordinary-seeming people can have tidal waves of talent and the most fascinating lives imaginable.
Even more than I’ve learned to speak well, I’ve learned to listen well. Stories are what bring us together. Storytelling doesn’t just make the world go around, it built civilization and language itself. I’ll never get enough of it and that’s what keeps me coming back.
I never thought of myself as a speaker or a leader. I’ll rephrase that. I NEVER thought of myself, of all people, as a speaker or a leader. I only came to confront one of my worst fears. I didn’t think I’d ever actually be any good at it! Now I love what I once hated and dreaded, like a stray puppy being adopted by the city dog catcher.
Where there is resistance there is great power, hidden power. It wouldn’t bother us if it didn’t mean something to us, if it didn’t resonate on some deep level. I encourage you, if you’ve ever felt like me and wanted to run screaming from a microphone, to do something about it. You don’t have to carry that feeling forever. If you can make yourself get up and speak for one minute a hundred times, you can be free. I got my DTM with roughly forty speeches.
Well, what do you say? No, seriously, I’d love to know. I’m listening.
From the perspective of a Gen Xer, one of the brightest lines separating us from Millennials is their uncanny comfort in front of a camera. Any camera. They always seem to know how to shape-shift into a photogenic pose with milliseconds of notice, transforming from ordinary people to professional models. That’s, uh, not me.
Things I would rather do than appear on camera:
Be splattered with mud
Stand in line for two hours
Get my teeth drilled
I can say this with aplomb because I have done all of those things in recent memory, and none of them made my heart palpitate, caused me to break out in a cold sweat, or forced tears from my eyes. Being on camera does.
As a professional, I understand that comfort on camera is now not just a key business skill, but a simple social requirement. People want to take lots of photos, tag their friends, and post them on social media because that’s how people relate. I appreciate this, too, because I love seeing pictures of my friends and associates smiling and looking good. It shouldn’t be any bigger of a deal than, say, having people drive by and catch a quick glimpse of your lawn.
Alas, the way I look on camera is the way I look all the time. I look like myself, my self-conscious and nervous self.
What makes for a bad photo is an awkward, unnatural facial expression. The attitude, not anything about the person. For instance, my dog is perfectly happy to have his picture taken even when he’s sprawled on his back with his tongue hanging out sideways and his ear inside out. In one sense he looks like a contorted mess of a creature, but in another he looks cheerful and friendly.
What I want to look like:
What I feel like I look like:
This is just in still photos. Video is even worse.
I had occasion to appear live on video for two minutes. I had several weeks’ notice. Everything was going my way:
I had hours of experience with the software
I had already submitted my official written report
I had participated in the same event the previous year
I personally knew almost everyone involved
My presentation was scheduled around the midpoint, with plenty of people both before and after me
I had checked in and tested my volume
I had rehearsed my material, triple-checked my data, and set up the lighting where I would sit
I got up early to do full hair and makeup
I was sitting on my own couch, in my own living room, with my husband by my side for moral support
Then I got the heads-up that I would be on in a few minutes. That’s when the trouble really started.
The previous night, I had gone to bed early, knowing my alarm was set and everything was prepared. I barely slept a wink all night. First I dreamed that I woke up at 9:30 and missed the whole thing. Then I dreamed that someone had smashed my phone, pulverizing the screen to the extent that it peeled off the device, but nobody would admit who did it. All this over a two-minute, unmemorable blip of a routine presentation.
By the time my turn came to speak, I was in bits. My heart was hammering, I felt waves of nausea, and tears started in the corners of my eyes.
I choked. I turned on my microphone but left my camera off, knowing full well I was supposed to turn it on.
I delivered a perfectly adequate report and returned control to the chair.
Then I spent the rest of the meeting tormenting myself. Why am I like this?? What the heck was I thinking??? Cheater! Screwup!
I debated apologizing to my entire team, then realized that everyone probably shrugged it off and forgot all about it five minutes later. Assuming they noticed or cared at all. Bringing up my petty personal concern would constitute 1. Drama and 2. An unprofessional waste of others’ bandwidth. The way to deal with it is to FIX IT before next time.
This is a common issue for me. I’ve been actively battling stage fright for three and a half years. At this point it’s my single biggest personal issue. I continue to put myself into situations where I can confront myself and hopefully improve, and I continue to suffer waves of unwelcome physiological response in return.
Body! Y U do this??
There are two ways to go when emotions and neurochemistry stand in our way. We can quit and back away, knowing we will continue to smack against this obstacle over and over again. Or we can start throwing ourselves at it, hoping to crack it and break through.
Recognize that plenty of people are passing this way, simply opening the sliding door and walking through, or going around and using a different entrance. We make it difficult for ourselves by fixating on it and believing it is a legitimate problem.
My stage fright is not a legitimate problem. Literally nobody cares about it except for me. The only reason I discuss it is because someone else may benefit from my analysis.
If I ever get past this, “stage fright” will no longer be a thing on my to-deal list. I won’t be thinking about it. The more I dwell on MY STAGE FRIGHT the more it will be engraved on my foolish brain. I have to figure out how to think and act like people who enjoy being in the spotlight, who strut on camera. I suspect some of it is attitude and some of it is technical skill in practicing poses and facial expressions. (?)
When I started with public speaking, I thought someone might need to call an ambulance. I almost collapsed on the floor once after standing up and speaking for thirty seconds. Now I only feel that way when I’m on stage with a microphone in my hand, in front of a large audience, and I know I’m being recorded. Small room, not such a big deal. Off camera, not such a big deal.
I’ve felt the change in becoming relaxed during situations that used to be stressful and scary. I know I have it in me to keep grinding away, buffing off the rough edges, whenever I wish that something about myself were more streamlined. Panicking on camera is not part of my personality and it’s not something that benefits me in any way. I can let it go, and when I do, my life will be easier.
The answer is to create more situations where I am on camera until I just quit caring. I did it with running, I did it with martial arts, I did it with garden-variety public speaking in a conference room. Millions of people appear on camera and find it neutral, uninteresting, exciting, or emotionally fulfilling. There is a way if only I can find it.
Out of the chaos came a brief window of opportunity for something different, something polished and orderly. How it happened I’m still not sure. We found ourselves at an awards banquet, where I received a trophy for the first time in my life.
Actually not one but three!
This is how it looks on the outside:
A woman walks on stage and accepts an award. She is wearing a new dress and is in full hair and makeup.
This is how it looked 90 minutes earlier:
The scene, a studio apartment full of half-packed boxes, rolls of tape, and Sharpie markers.
A man has blood all over his face because he has somehow cut open his eyelid. This is terrifying and also very inconvenient timing! The man and his wife are in the process of getting ready to leave for a formal event and ‘blood everywhere’ is not part of the dress code.
Injury treated, the couple dress in haste and run to the street to catch their rideshare. Picture a woman sitting next to an open window, hair blowing vertically because all the windows are open, as she tries to apply makeup using her phone camera.
Couple stops on the way to pick up keys to their new apartment, where they will be moving in five days, hence the precarious towers of cardboard scattered around their home.
Couple climbs out of rideshare. Wife still has vertical hair, complemented by mascara on only one eye. Wife scurries into restroom hoping nobody will try to take her picture as it is not Halloween.
While the doors have not yet opened, wife feels that she is 20 minutes late. She was supposed to help set up the table for the door prizes.
When you see a normal, average person, it can be hard to tell that that person is having a tough time. Not unless he still has blood on his face or she is still walking around with her hair pointing toward the ceiling.
This has been a tough year. I signed on to fill an office, and almost immediately my personal life exploded. I had a devastating death in the family, my husband traveled for work 21 out of 50 weeks, our dog was diagnosed with a liver tumor and given two months to live, and I started having migraines and night terrors again. Then there were all the oral surgeries and now we’re moving. The hardest part has been our inconsiderate upstairs neighbors, who are only reliably quiet between midnight and 4:30 am. I’m so tired all the time I feel like I have amnesia, or maybe dementia.
I have felt scattered, disorganized, guilty, desperate, and often incompetent every day for the past twelve months.
Yet how do I explain the trophies?
Oh, sure, I did the work. I did it all and I did it well. A lot of the stuff I did was not even mentioned.
I wasn’t just an area director, I had a Distinguished area.
I may have been a Spark Plug for one person, but I also coached a club from two members to twenty-one and trained officers from two districts and five divisions.
I did all the stuff they mentioned for the Above and Beyond trophy, and I also did three other similarly-scaled projects that weren’t on the list.
Not only that, but I also co-chaired a conference in another district, completed four award levels, completed all the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster except for faxing in the final paperwork, ran a campaign, and won a contested election.
It feels weird and inappropriate to actually list off all the stuff I did over the past twelve months. It doesn’t seem real, or fair, or something I can’t quite name.
I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling my self-image with my outer image, my emotions with what is apparently objective fact.
Why do I FEEL like an incompetent slacker loser? Why do I constantly feel like I am procrastinating when objectively, I get so much done?
They say it’s Impostor Syndrome. That when we’re growing and learning, it means we’re working outside our comfort zone. That the only way to never feel like an impostor is to only do things we know we can handle 100%, like making toast or putting our shoes on the correct feet.
Can’t I just feel for one day like I’m on top of everything? Can’t I just for one day feel like I know what I’m doing?
Every day in Toastmasters has been a battle for me, every day since the first day, when I stood shaking like a leaf and barely able to say my name. My fight against shyness, social phobia, and pathological stage fright has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It looks like nothing and it feels like someone should call me an ambulance. I have felt that I would collapse if I took another step. I have felt like sprinting for the exit. I have felt like crying and I have felt like I would black out and hit the floor.
I never did. I forced myself and I kept going.
Oh, it’s hard. It’s hard sometimes.
People say I’m a great speaker now. Most of the time, I’m not scared anymore. People notice that I show up and I’m willing to help out anywhere I am asked. Sometimes they tease me about being District Director one day. Let’s not be getting ahead of ourselves, I say.
The analogy I gave earlier is that I feel like I’m constantly falling up a flight of stairs. I trip and stumble and bounce from one step to another, and somehow I always seem to stick the landing, breathless and rumpled. How far can someone tumble upstairs, though?
The truth is that we can’t tell how other people feel by looking at them, we can only tell if we ask. I have no way of knowing whether all my friends and peers feel just as uncertain and overwhelmed as I do. Maybe they also shun the spotlight and work out of a sense of duty and curiosity, maybe they also find themselves up there trying to be gracious when they’d rather peek out from under a tablecloth.
What I’ve found in my case is that my emotions are rarely appropriate to the occasion, and they always try to steer me wrong. I’ve found that my stress level is always about the same, even when I’m doing 10x more than I previously did at that exact same mix of neurochemistry. I’ve found that I am not good at feelings like pride or satisfaction or fun or relaxation. I am a tightly wound person, and I probably always will be, and I may as well use some of that energy to benefit society.
This is why I occasionally go above and beyond, because acceptable and enough isn’t really in my comfort zone.
My first day at WDS, “all I did” was check in to my hotel, register, and go to one meetup. Then, thunderbolt from the blue, I made an instant friend!
Kismet doesn’t usually happen at your house. It happens when you get up and go somewhere where there are other people, preferably on a similar wavelength. This is the best reason to go to conferences and workshops.
The kismet thing is even funnier from my new friend’s perspective. Just the night before, she spontaneously went to an event, where she met a workshop facilitator, and then had the bright idea to go to this person’s next event. We happened to sit next to each other. From the moment we started talking, we felt an unusually strong connection.
Two days ago, I was already in town, already packed, already registered, my annual lightning-bolt disruption experience carefully planned. This is my fourth year, and I bring fully formed expectations of making fabulous new friends and having life-altering conversations.
I’m, you might say, a ringer.
My friend, though, two days ago she was just living her life. Suddenly she stumbled down the rabbit hole, not even having heard of this event going on across the street from her office.
Are you hearing this? Are you??
These types of encounters are available to you the moment you disrupt your routine. Go somewhere new and different, introduce yourself to strangers, be open to new ideas and new conversations. Maybe even across the street from your building?
The workshop itself, the meetup, I should tell you about this because it was excellent.
Marli Williams. Check her out. She’s a genius and she changes lives so often that she may be sorta kinda taking it for granted.
This particular meetup was called: “How to Be an EPIC Facilitator Who Changes Lives.” A lot of us had *aha!* reactions to the concept of facilitating rather than teaching. I took vigorous notes and already feel like I have had a major perceptual shift around facilitating meetings and events.
Picture the room. It’s literally standing-room only. A few people standing in the back could sit on the floor if they chose, but honestly there is so much energy in the space that one would find it hard to remain seated.
Every person present is there for an extremely specific message, which is how to be a leader and change lives. See that this attracts a very particular type of person and a certain mindset.
The more specific you can get when you are dialing in to a new friend wavelength, the easier the click will be.
Pull back a moment. What if I had sat next to someone else? Was there another person in the room (or more than one) who might also have felt like an instant friend?
The point is to set aside the time, to be open to the possibility, to make room for friendship. It feels like people used to be better about this, about having long timeless evenings of conversation and laughter. On a weeknight!
Everyone got ready to go. We turned to each other.
“Do you want to go somewhere? Like, now?”
“What do you want to do?”
We wound up drinking tea and bogarting a booth in a bar for, what, three hours? Exchanging life stories and talking about every single thing ever.
Have you ever been swept away and smitten by a new friend? When was the last time?
This is something I want for the world, and also the reason I’m interested in event planning and facilitating workshops in the first place. If I could lead a discussion and have it end with new friends walking out the door together, I’d die happy. Probably even if it only happened once!
Friendship. Out of all things, isn’t it something the world could use a lot more of?
When I went to my first World Domination Summit, I was lit up and inspired by the academies and the keynote speakers. I took pages and pages of notes and felt a serious case of FoMO about all the times I couldn’t be in three places at once.
With each year that’s gone by, I’ve felt more like I’m here for the people I will meet, and that the event content is more of a side attraction. Oh, yes, this person has published a book / runs an annual event / has a website / has a podcast and I can catch up later. But ***this person*** will only cross my path for two hours unless I do something drastic
Like get vulnerable and reach out and say
“Hey, I like you”
“Do you want to go somewhere? So we can talk more?”
Sometimes people say “sure” and then they talk themselves out of it later. That’s because most of our interaction with other people is via alphabet letters these days. Or memes or emojis, but... We aren’t doing much, culturally, about sitting across from each other and listening intently and making a magical conversation bubble.
Face to face, voice to voice, laughing in stereo.
As I write about this, as I get very worked up about the power of friendship, I start picturing all my older friendships. I have not been present for my old friends lately and I feel sad and full of fails about that. Then I think, that is not friendship. No real friend would want someone to associate guilt or sadness or failure with that friendship! Right?
That’s my call to action here. Reach out to someone, someone you like. Make a new friend, step closer to an acquaintance, call up someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Say hi, tell them why you’re thinking about them.
I told the waitress for our section that we had just met and we felt like we’d been friends for twenty years. I told her she should watch for who sat in our booth next, and see if it looked like they had picked up on that vibe. Maybe her curiosity and expectation will influence the next party to sit there. Maybe they’ll have a crazy amount of fun and have no idea why!
Maybe it will be you and your friend?
Maybe I can carry that feeling into the next workshop I lead. Maybe I can, maybe anyone can, create a space where people feel like friends are all around them, waiting to be made.
I won my election as Division Director in Toastmasters!
This is the first time I’ve won an elected office. Another kid encouraged me to run for class president in sixth grade, and I didn’t win. Since that time, I’ve held a number of offices in various clubs, but never in a contested election. I’m not a very competitive person; in fact, I have a distaste for competing and I tend to prefer to serve in the background.
I’m motivated mostly by two forces: curiosity, and a feeling of duty. As long as I’m interested in doing something, I feel like I might as well be helping out and contributing.
This is why you’ll often see me moving tables and chairs, picking up litter, or submitting reports. Not only do I not need to be in the spotlight, I actively avoid it. At least I used to until I decided it was time to get over my aversion to public speaking.
Did I say ‘aversion’? Another way to say it is that I began with a level of stage fright that I have only seen surpassed by three or four people.
It turns out that in an organization like Toastmasters, this willingness to work hard, coupled with the drive to push yourself past your comfort zone, is recognized and rewarded. This makes it dangerous for a shy person who wants to avoid the spotlight.
As an area director, I was asked to apply for a position as division director. Sure, I thought, if you need me, I can at least go through the motions.
Then my application was approved.
Then I did my panel interview, and I was nominated unanimously.
I wrote my candidate statement and designed my campaign poster and had it printed and mounted.
Embarrassed every step of the way! The last thing I wanted was to be putting up a big old poster with a head shot of myself on it. I moved from a desire to do a competent job.
As far as I knew, I was running uncontested.
The day of the conference arrived. I was fighting a cold and short three hours of sleep, but I arrived early for the business meeting. Let’s just get through this and then I can focus on preparing for next year’s term, right?
The way this typically works, one candidate is nominated for each of a slate of positions, and the elections are somewhat of a formality. Everyone knows each other, and everyone on the slate has just spent at least a year serving the district in one office or another. We’ve had plenty of time to form impressions.
There’s an opportunity for other members to run a “floor campaign,” in which they submit the appropriate paperwork and then have a club officer nominate them from the audience. Sometimes the candidate knows there will be a competitor months in advance. Other times, the floor campaign might be a surprise.
This is what happened.
First, there was a floor campaign for Program Quality Director, and the floor campaign won.
Then, there was a floor campaign for one of the division director positions, and the floor campaign won.
The nominated candidate for that division, having lost his election, suddenly decided to run against me and try to win my division.
This is technically perfectly legitimate, and it’s been done before, although I did not know this at the time. In practice, it rarely works.
Rationally it makes sense: games have rules.
Physically, my body reacted as though I had been attacked. My heart hammered and all the blood drained from my face. Alphabetically I’d have to go first. I understood that I had approximately one minute to prepare to give a campaign speech, walk up onto the stage, take the microphone, and speak in front of over two hundred people.
Are you kidding me with this??
Emotionally I felt one thing. BETRAYAL. What a weird and medieval word. In my mind I fully understood that this was *not personal.* In point of fact, I had helped this man with his campaign. I had noticed that he didn’t have his poster made, and I went out of my way to help him with resources. I knew he had nothing against me, that this was about him and his personal ambitions and the rules of the game.
The undeniable fact that my body was flooded with stress chemicals, and that my emotions were thoroughly activated, was irksome to me. I hardly needed the distraction of my emo, weepy inner child when I had a speech to give.
But my heart was still pounding so hard I could barely see straight. My arms were shaking, not trembling but shaking.
I took the mic and walked out, feeling utterly unprepared, with my natural hair. Yet another emotional hot button for me. If I had understood that I would be performing this morning, I would certainly have gotten out my flat iron!
I gave one of the most lackluster speeches of my speaking career.
No idea if anyone else felt that way, but I know that I did not meet my own standards. Tired, kinda ill, frumpy, shaken up, such a frazzled mess that I actually... said... ‘um.’
(I’m legendary for my almost perfectly clean speeches and lack of vocal tics).
I’d just heard my rival speak. He wore a suit, and he was so vibrant and charismatic, I knew I couldn’t match his performance on my best day.
I spelled out my platform and how glad I was to work with such fine people in such a fine district, one with such high standards.
My speech was probably too short, but I just wanted to be done and go sit down before I fell down. I felt like I might faint and I didn’t want to do it up there.
Then my opponent spoke. He looked great, he owned the stage, he sounded completely pumped. My heart sank.
Then they went off to count the ballots, and the next ten minutes felt like ten hours. My arms were still shaking.
I won. I had 39% more votes.
My rival hadn’t gained a single vote.
This basically meant that everyone who voted for him the first time voted for him the second time, which is great. He’d successfully built a base of people who knew him and respected his work.
The contest was between his clearly superior performance on stage and my carefully developed platform. His ambitious power move and my reputation. It’s entirely possible that some of the votes weren’t so much for me as they were against my opponent’s strategy.
Afterward, a number of people came up to congratulate me and, in some cases, dish about what happened. I realized that time after time, I was talking to someone I had helped in some way. We had worked together side by side and I had shown up for them, as they were showing up for me.
My rival came up during lunch to shake my hand and say, hey, no hard feelings. I reminded him that on the bright side, he was now eligible to compete in speech contests again! I told him he was twice the speaker I am, and I encouraged him to compete next year.
The reason I am not competitive is that I don’t think it proves anything. If I’m up against someone and they win, then I’m not learning by competing with them, I’m learning by watching them. If I win, then it might just be because I’m more experienced or because someone else had a headache that day. Winning doesn’t help me improve; improving helps me win. If I’m truly focused on improving, then winning one day is irrelevant for the next day.
I play the long game. When I’m in, I’m in for my own reasons. The competition is between Yesterday Me and Tomorrow Me, and Tomorrow Me had better come out ahead. The real game is building allies, working together for a common cause. I never know where I’ll be in relation to everyone else three years from now.
I do know where I’ll be next year, and that’s filling out a ballot to help choose my successor, because hey! I won my election!
“Your paycheck is your thank-you.” Every manager and employer seems to think this. Almost no employees agree. This is a huge mystery to me, partly because it takes a split second to say “thank you” and it costs nothing. Why would this be so hard to do? Check the box! Even the brattiest four-year-old is capable of begrudgingly grinding out a forced thank-you. Just say it. Geez. It’s basic good manners.
Beyond gratitude, I’m starting to find that there is one more free thing that most people find terrifically motivating, and that is praise. Even the tiniest amount of praise! It’s hard to come by in this world and people are hungry for it. They may not even realize that they’re orienting their entire lives around a chance to hear a few words of approval.
The art of the extremely specific compliment is something I’ve been honing for years. I’ve found that if you say something true and positive that is not necessarily obvious, you can utterly transform someone’s attitude. You can sometimes also transform their self-concept. They won’t be able to stop thinking about what you said.
I’ve heard from people years after the fact, that they remembered something I said about them, something I don’t even remember having said. That’s partly because I do this all the time. It’s a routine, like leaving a tip or waving goodbye.
When I started learning to give evaluations in Toastmasters, it amplified this art of the extremely specific compliment. It’s fairly easy to give someone one sentence about something they did well. Try extending that to two or three minutes, and it takes more thought.
It’s possible to give the same piece of advice in multiple ways. Say your feedback is that someone [isn’t talking loud enough] because [nobody can hear them in the back of the room]. Honestly that comes across as criticism. To a vulnerable novice who is feeling extremely nervous and inadequate, that feedback can be devastating! One piece of relatively mild critique instead of effusive support and praise can stop that person from ever trying again.
Slip that critique in between four or five compliments, and it’s easier to take.
Phrase it instead as helpful advice, something that explains how to fix the issue, and you have their attention.
“You can work on projecting by aiming your voice at the back wall. [Demonstrate posture and voice projection]. That will start to happen as you feel more comfortable.” Nothing about this comes across as a critique, because it isn’t.
THEN include the praise, support, and encouragement.
My goal is to mention at least twelve things the person is doing well. I also look for something unique, a special talent that this person may not realize is hidden in there, in amongst the insecurity and inexperience. I sometimes run out of time to point out all the things the person is doing well, so if I think of more, I’ll pull them aside and tell them afterward, or write them a note later.
This works. No fewer than four of mine just won first place in different speaking contests. If I had been more critical and less supportive, they might not be there at all.
I WAS RIGHT. My praise was technically accurate, precise, and correct. They knew it. They rose to the level of my expectations, which is what people always do.
This is what happens when you make a habit of lavish praise. People notice. They take it in. Their eyes glitter. The next time they see you, they sit up straight and wave. Make people feel seen in the best way, and they’ll never forget you.
Why can’t people do this at work?
There’s another trick that can be added to this art of the extremely specific compliment. That is to praise someone who isn’t there. If you’re consistently heard “spreading gossip” of the positive variety, it becomes clear that this is your pattern of behavior. It reinforces this concept that your praise is to be believed. If someone hears you say something positive and true about another person, and they agree with your assessment, it helps them believe the nice things you had to say about them, too.
People usually don’t believe it when someone pays a compliment. We’re taught to brush it off. We expect all performance evaluations to be negative and painful. Why, though?
It’s entirely possible to hold people accountable for their performance without going negative. If you get the motivation and incentives down right, though, you don’t usually need the accountability.
What’s wrong with the work world for a lot of people is that they’re expected to comply with someone else’s strict rules and regulations. They’re only really noticed if they mess up, by coming in late, missing a deadline, or doing a task imperfectly. They start to feel flinchy about even walking in the door. They start to wake up with dread in the pit of their stomach. They start feeling depressed all day on their day off, unable to stop thinking about how much they hate going in to work.
What does that do to performance? Seriously? How can that kind of emotional environment possibly motivate people to work harder or do a better job?
This is why I talk about the praise engine. When people are noticed for doing well, when they are praised for bringing something special, when it’s clear that they’re offering something unique and valuable, then they associate the work with their identity. They start working for pride and personal satisfaction. At that point you don’t need to motivate them to work - you need to motivate them to take breaks and go home, because otherwise you can’t stop them.
Not only that. When you start up the praise engine, other people start to learn to operate it. They learn by your example. You start hearing other people give evaluations and teach methods in your style. You realize you’ve created a culture that propagates itself.
Get yourself a praise engine. It fuels itself. It costs nothing to run. It builds copies of itself and does its own maintenance. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper than having to continually replace all your unmotivated, demoralized staff.
If you hate affirmations, you have three choices right now. 1. Hate-read! That’s always fun. 2. Stop now and spend the next ten minutes reading or doing something else. 3. Activate your curiosity and hear me out.
You’re right, affirmations are dumb.
It’s dumb to lie to yourself and try to hypnotize yourself into something that you know isn’t true.
That’s not how I use affirmations, though. I use them, but first I put them through my process of inquiry. Aren’t you lucky that I’m going to share it with you?
(Here you could practice an affirmation: I AM LUCKY, and ask yourself whether you believe that is generally true, or only just now).
I am happy to make affirmations about my personal values, because I’m reminding myself of things I believe are important. I AM PATIENT, I remind myself, the few times that I need a reminder. I value patience and I practice it. I’m fine with giving myself credit for that.
On the other hand, I would not do the affirmation I AM BEAUTIFUL, because I don’t give a care. That’s not a quality that matters to me. In fact, I find the concept annoying.
I also absolutely hate the expression “comfortable in my own skin” because every time I hear it, it makes my skin crawl. Like, what are the other options? Comfortable out of your skin? Comfortable in someone else’s skin?? I fit the description - I have a fantastic body image and a very high regard for my physical self - (and see how I sneaked in a few extra affirmations there) - but I certainly don’t need to use other people’s preferred language to express that about myself. I will be delighted when this phrase falls out of favor and I can quit hearing it.
That’s another step in my affirmation interrogation. If I generally like the concept of someone else’s affirmation, I will rephrase it and adopt it for myself. It’s poetic. Maybe one person might respond better to an affirmation in the form of a haiku, or a request, such as MAY I BE PATIENT or:
I’m getting better
At tolerating these jerks
Though I don’t want to.
I AM A POET!
Argue that one if you like. I say if you claim to be an artist, then you are one. Presto change-o.
I also think affirmations work very well as missives of gratitude, such as I FREAKING LOVE TACOS or THIS IS MY FAVORITE! Hang around me long enough and you’ll find that I say stuff like this all the time.
Pro tip: You can do this stuff without ever publicly declaring that you are doing it, or making any kind of issue out of it. This is especially important if you find yourself amongst naysayers or those who describe themselves as “fluent in sarcasm.”
Ha, now there’s an affirmation if I ever heard one! It comes up in dating profiles all the time. I AM FLUENT IN SARCASM. *snort*
(That one is definitely not mine. I think sarcasm is very lazy, mean, and not at all funny).
The thing about affirmations is that for most of us, our self-image is far behind where we are actually presenting in the world. Try to compliment a woman - any woman! - and watch what happens. She will fight you. It’s like we’ve collectively decided that there’s a moral hazard in graciously accepting someone’s compliment.
That’s the same feeling that makes us so squirmy about affirmations. It feels icky and gross. We’re much better at the nasty kind of negative self-talk, such as:
* i am an idiot *
* i suck at this *
* i should never have come here *
If anyone comes along and tries to talk us out of these dreadful thoughts, we feel compelled to argue our point. Please, let me explain to you in meticulous detail just why exactly I suck so much.
I’ve spent some time convincing myself that what is truly important is that this other person, this tricky complimenter, is reaching out and trying to make a connection. Rejecting a compliment is more than just rejecting a gift, it’s rejecting a person and telling them that their opinion and their act of caring means nothing to you.
Also, what if they’re right?
What if, when they tell you YOU’RE SO SWEET or MMM, YOU’RE THE BEST HUGGER, what if they’re right? What if you allow that factual statement to define you such that you bring more of that desirable quality into the culture?
What if compliments are people’s preferred way of building a better world? What if they’re... a performance evaluation?
This is how I got myself into trouble. I started forcing myself to do public speaking because I knew myself to be a physical coward. <— Negation alert!
Part of public speaking is learning to accept evaluations. You have to accept that if people who don’t know each other give the same feedback, then objectively it’s true. For instance: “Nobody can hear you in the back of the room.” Okay, thanks for telling me!
I steadied myself to hear a constant barrage of difficult feedback, because I like to challenge and push myself [yeah, you know what that was just now, *nod*].
Instead, people kept telling me: YOU ARE SO FUNNY!
Dang. Now how am I supposed to get my head around that?
I didn’t agree with this assessment, but I kept hearing it. People from entirely different clubs would say the exact same thing, over and over, that I had “such a dry sense of humor.” I’m still not entirely sure what that means, but what am I going to do, call these people a bunch of liars?
I had to accept that whatever it was I was doing, the audience liked it and wanted more of it. Who was I to refuse?
As an affirmation, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I AM SO FUNNY, because that’s practically inviting my inner self to step up with an attack and a negation. I can, though, tell myself that my strong points in speaking are humor, research, and informational speeches.
What comes out of that kind of affirmation is a resume. It leads directly to a dispassionate and objective assessment of your marketable skills. That in turn leads to better jobs and contributing at a higher level.
Is it fair for a surgeon to affirm that I CAN SAVE LIVES? Is it fair to say something like I AM ACCURATE or I AM CAREFUL or I WORK HARD?
Can we grudgingly allow ourselves to admit, secretly and in private, that maybe we’re not 100% terrible?
If we come across an affirmation with which we disagree, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why we feel that it is not true? Something like I AM WORTHY or I DESERVE TO BE HAPPY?
This is how I use affirmations. I introduce something that is new to my self-concept, something that objectively seems to be true. I talk myself into why this is true and why it matters that I agree with it.
It’s allowed because we’re allowed to grow and change. In fact, we’re supposed to, partly because it makes life better for other people.
Whatever you are, be a good one.
How much can a person do in three years? I’d like to present a study in transformation that involves overcoming a phobia, learning a new art form, and racking up credentials.
I had an intense fear of public speaking. It was so bad that simply walking into a room where I knew I would have to stand up and say something would make me break into a sweat. People who have met me refuse to believe this. That’s because I’m a shy extrovert, and talking to people I already know in a social setting does not provoke this phobia.
Now, when I speak or perform, people will come up and exclaim over how great I was. They say, “You sound so natural up there.” How dare you? How dare you say such a cruel and heartless thing? I want to ask. Nothing was more unnatural than this! Of course there’s no way for them to know how hard I worked over the course of three years to battle one of the biggest issues in my life.
I can honestly say that getting punched in the mouth is easier for me than the work I did to get over my fear of public speaking. I can say that because I set a personal goal every year to overcome something that scares me, and after I did public speaking, I went on to martial arts. I promoted up a belt level in two different forms in one year, and that’s another example of how much is possible in a given time period.
All it takes, all it takes to reach any goal, is to show up over and over and over again. Chip away at it in small, measurable increments. Usually these increments are one hour in length.
I made a public commitment in December of 2015 that I would confront my phobic reaction to public speaking by joining Toastmasters. It took me three weeks to force myself to go to an actual meeting. My membership was officially processed on February 1, 2016.
I planned to go to meetings for a few weeks or months or millennia and sit by as a wallflower, watching and listening and learning. Instead, I walked in and several people came up to introduce themselves and shake my hand. Then, moments after the gavel, I was asked to stand up, give my name, and explain how I heard about the club.
I THOUGHT I WOULD DIE. PHYSICALLY DIE.
That inner feeling of panic is a purely physical sensation. It is the secretion of adrenalin by the adrenal gland, a little bean that sits on top of the kidneys. It is not the boss of me. Further, it is the same little bean that sends excitement when I get a check in the mail or open a gift. My job is to use my left brain and verbalize thoughts in reaction to these physical sensations. “You are not dying, body of mine, you dumbass. Stay put.”
I joined Toastmasters, not realizing that I had stumbled into one of the very best clubs in the known world. I wasn’t to know that most of the people in the room that day would still be there three years later, my good friends and colleagues and lunch buddies.
I shook like a leaf when I got up to speak. It would start with my hands, rattle down my arms, and spread through my torso until I felt like I straddled a tectonic fault. One afternoon I went up there, gave a one-minute speech, and almost collapsed on the way back to my seat, as my legs gave out. I’ve run a marathon and I was very disappointed in my hamstrings that day.
Toastmasters is designed to teach leadership and communication skills. Everyone in the club has fought the same problems: being nervous, forgetting chunks of a speech, stammering, flubbing a punchline, losing the point, organizing thoughts poorly. We’re encouraging and compassionate because we’ve all taken our turn to fade at the lectern. We physically know how it feels.
The weirdest thing is that it’s almost impossible to tell, as an audience member, when the speaker is nervous. I’ve said it and I’ve heard it, but the truth is that it’s really hard to tell when someone’s hands are shaking, or even if they’re dripping sweat up there. It never looks even 1% as bad as it feels on the inside. People are listening for the message, that’s all. They’d care if you told them someone’s lights were on in the parking lot, and they’ll care when you share something else with them, whether it’s your life story or a few minutes about golf.
Usually all we’re asking is five minutes of someone’s time, and that’s not much to ask.
It took four months for me to force myself to give my first speech. It was predictably awful. My remit was to give an ice breaker, or talk about myself for four minutes. I ran out of material at about two and a half.
Anyone else would have quit.
I kept showing up, though. I forced myself. There are two me’s, the me that you see and the phantom me, walking behind me with a firm grasp on the back of my neck, frog-marching me hither and yon. When I’ve made a public commitment I follow through.
I gave ten speeches that first year. I took on a club office.
The next year, I earned my Competent Communicator and Competent Leader. I joined a second club.
In 2018, I earned my ACB, ALB, ACS, and a Triple Crown. I served as Area Director and Club Coach.
In the course of three years, I’ve earned five educational awards, held two offices, entered two competitions, been a test speaker, and won a bunch of ribbons for Best Speaker, Best Evaluator, and Best Table Topics. I keep them in a paper lunch sack because they outgrew an envelope.
If all goes according to plan, I’ll be a Distinguished Toastmaster next year, not quite three and a half years after joining as a knock-kneed stress case.
I know I can hold a room. I know that when I walk up to the lectern, people are atingle with anticipation. I look around and I can see their eyes glitter. I can make them all suck in their breath at once. I can make them laugh on command. They’re mine. I’m not a quivering jelly of panic and terror anymore. I’m a star. Not a superstar, just a small one, but I’m sparkling nonetheless.
It wasn’t me, it was the program. It was the support of my club members, who encouraged me and led me by the hand and cheered and hugged me - and convinced me that I’m funny, that I should go out and do improv comedy. I never knew. I never knew I could do all of this.
I did know that I could stay the course, that I have it within me to force myself to do things. I knew I could hold steady and complete three years of work on one goal.
As I near the ultimate goal, I have my eye on that little gold DTM pin. After that, though, what’s next? What will be my next three-year goal?
How about yours?
I’m a shy person, so much so that even standing up to say my name would leave me trembling and turning purple. Shyness has interfered with my friendships, my career, and my love life. A cute boy once asked me to dance, and I was so confounded by my attraction to him that I couldn’t answer. He shrugged and walked off. I’ve struggled even to share such information as whether someone had left their lights on in the parking lot. People who know me well will probably be very surprised by all this, because I’m fine when I’m with familiar faces. Shyness strikes at inconvenient and illogical moments. I didn’t want my shyness to interfere with my ability to make an impact on the world, so I’m pushing myself to learn to overcome these feelings. Maybe my efforts can help you, too.
First off, being shy is totally different from being an introvert. I’m a shy extrovert. It’s possible to be a shy introvert or an introvert who is not shy. Lots of introverts are very famous celebrities such as singers, actors, models, and comedians. They have no problem performing, as long as they get plenty of time to recharge alone. It seems helpful to distinguish shyness from introversion or extraversion, because while introversion is a character trait, shyness is an issue that can be mastered.
Two things have been helpful for me in getting a handle on my shyness. First, it takes a mission, a vision that is compelling enough to make fighting these feelings worthwhile. Second, much of shyness is physiological - it’s a physical state as much as anything.
How do you develop a mission? Many or most people have at least one cause that resonates with them, whether it’s feral cats, literacy, or protecting the Earth from asteroids. The sense of a mission starts to kick in when you start to realize that you can personally make an impact. More, you can influence others and bring them along with you. You don’t necessarily have to appear in public, perform, or give speeches to make this happen. Leading and organizing is based very much on Getting Organized.
I joined Toastmasters in January 2016 to force myself to overcome my intense dread of public speaking. It worked! The process is the same as what I’m learning in martial arts: stress inoculation. Exposing yourself to stress, fear, or pain in small doses can build your resistance and resilience, just like practicing a musical instrument or a foreign language in small increments increases your skill. Learning to give one-minute speeches led to four-minute speeches, then ten minutes, until I can now give hour-long workshops or speak on a microphone without those familiarly awful feelings of trembling, getting choked up, and turning colors.
Now I’m working on a leadership level called an Advanced Leader Silver. This entails an official role as Area Director, meaning I’m in charge of improving performance in five clubs in my area. I have to go to regular district meetings, respond to a certain volume of email, visit my clubs, and track a lot of information. Almost all of the work involved means processing email at home, listening, taking notes, and writing reports. For a shy person, 80% of the tasks are not a big deal. It’s the 20% that involves meeting new people, standing up to speak to them, and overcoming the ‘threshold anxiety’ of walking through a door and joining a group of people. The formalities of a training seminar or club meeting agenda are very helpful in facing this, because there’s a highly predictable structure, and almost all of it involves other people talking.
How is leadership different from anything else? Many people are acting in a leadership role somewhere in their lives, often without realizing it. The parent of a child plays ‘leader’ every day. Driving a car, ordering food, shopping and running errands - all require a certain amount of initiative and organization. Being the leader means taking an aerial view of a situation and spotting opportunities, bottlenecks, and pain points. A leader has a strategy. Here, again, many people have an innate critical mindset that they don’t realize could be useful in a leadership role. This shows up in lengthy product or restaurant reviews, for instance, or in any comments section. Someone always has a bunch of ideas for better ways to copy-edit something, introduce design improvements, or relate to other people or groups in a different way. Why not redirect that energy toward a group or organization that will actually be receptive to that input?
My approach toward leadership is strategic. My first instinct is to move toward the information flow. I want to figure out what the rules are, where I can learn more (handbooks, manuals, FAQs, websites, etc), who is where on the org chart, where I can find contact info, and how I can get to the locations where the action is happening. Other people will move directly toward the people, wanting to start by getting to know everyone, establishing connections, and forming an inner dossier of who knows whom and who does what. I’m most helpful in explaining things when people are confused, doing scut work, and encouraging people to do things when the only thing stopping them is nervousness. My way of earning loyalty is by demonstrating that I will show up, do what I was asked to do, follow through, get questions answered, and stick around to clean up after events. These are ways to get involved without being fried under the spotlight or having to pose for dozens of photographs.
The things we learn to do when we push ourselves are useful in every part of life. What I’m learning as I work on public speaking, leadership, and martial arts is that very few situations are inherently scary. It’s mostly a matter of building emotional intelligence and learning what makes other people tick. Feeling nervous and shy while meeting new people is a near-universal feeling, one that’s so common that you can count on sympathy when you express it. Find whatever means more to you than your physiological struggles with shyness, and you can defeat those feelings while making the world a better place.
World Domination Summit is in full swing. I woke up at 4:30 this morning, for no particular reason other than that I was so keyed up. It’s possible that WDS actually stands for We Don’t Sleep. We’re riding the bus downtown, getting ready for a full day of academies, a meetup, and dinner with my family. That’s a relatively mellow day! This is just one day in a busy week during which almost every minute is scheduled to the hilt. It’s when we have this intense desire to take in every scrap of information and engage with every possible opportunity that we feel like we’re drinking from the fire hose.
The more options we have in any arena, the more likely we are to feel a sense of FoMO. I’m doing everything, but somehow there are still things I am not doing! I wasn’t there! I missed the punchline! Everyone was partying without me! I’m not in the group photo!!! Wait, was there… cake??? I don’t care what they say, I CAN be in three places at once. I am omnipresent. I can apparate at will. I am somehow going to sit in this chair in this room, stand by that window in that other room, and get swept away by a conversation over there in the stairwell. ALL AT THE SAME TIME!
The brain wants what the brain wants.
When I feel this way, I try to pause and remind myself of the existence of this magical thing called the Internet. I can never possibly watch every video, connect with every person, read every article, look at every meme, follow every blog, or use every app. Even if I somehow thought I could, the moment I blinked there would be a trillion new uploads. I’m able to rest with this. Still I struggle with the bleak reality that I will never be able to read every book ever written.
…actually, I need a moment. I think there’s something in my eye.
We were talking the other day about how much I need a time turner (although I’m not Hermione Granger; I’m really more of a Luna Lovegood). I said, “The first thing I would do is leave it in my pocket and accidentally run it through the washing machine.” Accepting that we have to do all this stuff in the time dimension is something of a lifetime-level emotional project.
I’m looking at things differently after leading my own workshop. It’s a peek behind the curtain. As much as I feel FoMO about all the stuff I’m missing and all the things I won’t have time to do, I now recognize that all the speakers and presenters are also feeling a certain amount of FoMO about all the stuff they wish they had said. There’s a whole ocean of information behind the stream that comes out of that fire hose. Spending an hour or three hours in a classroom is only the tiniest drop of what that person could teach, given more time.
MORE TIME! I NEED MORE TIME!
I gave my workshop yesterday. In Toastmasters everyone always says there are three speeches: the speech you wrote, the speech you gave, and the speech you give in the car on the way home. On the surface, mine went well enough. People stayed for the whole thing, they took tons of notes, they laughed, they asked questions. I ran long, fifty percent more than scheduled. Still a half dozen people hung out afterward to ask more questions. As far as listener engagement, I did well. I’m trying to acknowledge myself for that. But…
There was so much more I wanted to say! There were entire sections of my supposed “outline” that I didn’t even touch on! I went totally off-grid, off-script, although fortunately not off-topic. (If I’d started talking about money it would have all been over). Part of why I woke up at 4:30 was that my feeble mortal brain immediately started spinning over all the things I wish I had said. Where’s my rewind button?
That’s not how it works, though. We have the moments we have. It’s life that we’re living, not waiting for the real thing to start, but the actual real thing. That’s the magnificent flaw, that we never realize until later that there was this moment, here and gone, this one half-fledged moment we had to connect and engage and experience. It’s flown off with nary a feather left behind. The rightnow bird is always on the wing.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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