This is the “T” entry for Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. It is my final entry.
What It Is
Toastmasters International is a member-run organization that focuses on self-improvement through public speaking and its related activities. Local groups are formed and run by ordinary, every day people. Leaders are chosen by the clubs and everything related to club matters is done by the members. I belonged to a group called the Nordonia Gaveliers.
I joined Toastmasters because I had enjoyed debate and oratory when I learned it in middle school, and I knew I had an interest in that area. But the big reason I joined was because I was a business owner and felt that if I had to do any presentations, I needed to know what I was doing. In fact, I had given such a presentation to a Women’s Networking group and had an epic fail that really burned. Even after that, it still took me two years to get up the nerve to join. Besides being a big time commitment with weekly meetings, I was really going to take a big risk to get up in front of a group again.
I am forever glad I did.
Nearly every Monday night for ten years, I attended a Toastmasters meeting. These meetings consisted of three “official” parts — Table Topics, Speeches, and Evaluations. Table Topics enables members to practice speaking “off-the-cuff” about a topic they are given. The speeches are scheduled, planned, and practiced before being given. They follow a series of manuals that explain the elements needed in the speech, and a series of questions the evaluator uses to analyze how the speaker did on their speech.
I participated fully in the program. After my first 10 speeches in the “Communication and Leadership” manual, I was off and running into other specialized areas, including Storytelling, Special Occasion speeches, and Humor. It gave me a way to set goals, and continue to grow as a speaker.
Toastmasters is highly responsible for my ability to write in a way that is clear and concise. When giving a speech, everything needs to be clear so the audience can easily follow along. I learned how to write my speeches vocally — rarely writing anything but a few key words down — which served me well for the speeches. However, it didn’t help me with the discipline of actually writing. When I started college, I knew it was time to start putting things on paper. I guess the one thing I am sorry about is that I didn’t keep any notes. The dozens and dozens of speeches I gave to Toastmasters are lost in time. There is no record.
Toastmasters taught me the importance of Roberts Rules of Order. It taught me how to deal with people when they are the most vulnerable. It taught me how to listen, as well as the importance of listening, and how nothing happens unless we listen well.
I found the most instructive part of the Toastmasters experience for me was learning how to evaluate others. Add to that, learn how to take evaluation. The idea of “constructive criticism” doesn’t set well with me, as the word criticism indicates negativity. In Toastmasters we learn how to evaluate fairly, always with an eye on those couple of things that could be improved. I also learned how to not be defensive about anything I said or did in a speech. I made my choices, and I took feedback for what it was — feedback. This has served me well in many situations in my life since then.
During my years with the club, I spent nearly five years as Vice President of Education, and a year as President. The club members waxed and waned, and yet a core group of us stood firm and kept things going. I never regretted any of the time I spent at Toastmasters because it gave more energy back than it required. I know that our club had some special elements to it that helped, and I’m grateful for that.
Of course that big part about being with a group like this is that we are all in it to win it. We all want to do well, and help each other do well. It isn’t a competition.
I met my friend Iris because of Toastmasters. She was trying to get a club started in her community, so began to come to our club for inspiration. I also become lifelong friend with Stacy, who now lives in Safety Harbor, Florida.
Our club had a cool “wings and beer” event after every meeting, which helped us form our bonds much closer. One of the places we frequented for a few years was called Angie’s. It had a bar with a bowling machine and a jukebox. I cannot hear “Love Shack” or “Atomic Dog” without thinking of my Toastmasters buddies, as we drank beer, played the bowling machine, and danced around the bar. It was a perfect way to unwind on a Monday night.
My club rallied around me when I had my cancer scare. Many of us liked to golf, so they pulled together a golf outing in my honor a week before I had surgery. There is so much more I can say about the relationships I built through Toastmasters, and how these people influenced me in a million ways. This blog just isn’t big enough for all of it.
Where It Led
Without a doubt, my connections in Toastmasters increased the likelihood that I would find my calling as a teacher. And once I did, it was a Toastmaster that helped open doors for me. Dave was a middle school principal, and he hired me to run a weekly leadership group of 8th graders to teach them public speaking. This was a wonderful opportunity for me, and helped me grow in additional aspects of the program. Working with young people was quite different than adults! The group even came to our club to share the speeches they wrote for their 8th grade graduation. It was a super special night.
In addition, Dave put me in touch with a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, Judy Wilfong. Judy and I wrote grants so I could bring storytelling units to her classes. We were successful in securing grants twice to make this happen. What was cool was that Southeast Middle was connected to the elementary school, which made it easy for the kids to perform their stories for the younger grades.
All of these experiences led me to my teaching career and helped me firmly plant my feet into it. In the time I was a Toastmaster I went from business owner to a college student. Without a doubt, the love and support from those in my club helped me immensely in this direction. I simply cannot measure what those years have given me.
When I gave my final speech during my farewell meeting on June 5, 2000, I used this poem as my guide. I felt like it said everything I couldn’t about my experience with the people and the process of Toastmasters.
I Was Afraid of Dying
By James Wright
I was afraid of dying
In a field of dry weeds.
All day long I have been walking among damp fields,
Trying to keep still, listening
To insects that move patiently.
Perhaps they are sampling the fresh dew that gathers slowly
In empty snail shells
And in the secret shelters of sparrow feathers fallen on the