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.
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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