"Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking" is an opening gambit used on countless occasions by those called upon to express themselves verbally in front of an audience. Generations of bridegrooms, best men and others called upon to speak at wedding receptions - usually fortified by the unholy spirit and clutching a scruffy set of notes - use this phrase as the King's Pawn to King 4 of their set of disjointed anecdotes; if not embarrassing to the happy couple then usually an embarrassment to the audience.
Why is it that people who express themselves perfectly well among friends or over the telephone find it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate effectively in public? Perhaps it's the fear of ridicule or making a mistake. Maybe it's all to do with the well-known British reserve ("let's not make a fuss, chaps"). It seems that, as modern methods of communication have flourished - the telephone, fax and E-mail, traditional speech communication has gone into decline.
For example, before the days of politics being orchestrated at national level by the parties' teams of spin-doctors and apportioned into sound-bite-sized chunks, candidates at elections carried on their campaigns at the hustings. Public meetings were held, attended by the candidates' supporters and opponents. Rhetoric was not only employed - it was expected. To be sure, there was heckling but even this was elevated to an art-form. Nowadays, political parties discourage candidates from holding public meetings and, given the abysmal level of oratory in Parliament, it's no wonder.
No-one can deny that, whatever your role in life, success depends more on good communications skills than on specific technical expertise. Contractors in particular need to express themselves at interview on a fairly frequent basis - it's a rare client nowadays who takes on anyone devoid of personality. When you're on contract, instilling confidence in the client is at least as important as getting the work done. Even the most elegant computer system is useless unless you can persuade users of the benefits and can train them in its use.
No business can ever be done without making a sale and selling is all about communication. As a manager, you need to inspire and motivate your staff; as an ambitious subordinate, you need to bring your qualities to your superiors' attention.
What can be done to improve your communications skills? Fortunes can be spent on personal development courses - some are good and others not-so-good. One of the most effective ways is in the company of like-minded people. This is where Toastmasters comes in.
Toastmasters International was founded over 70 years ago and is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the development of speaking and communications skills. There are over 8000 Toastmaster clubs world-wide with over 90 of them being in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Most UK clubs meet fortnightly on a weekday evening though, as with other organisations, there are variations of time and frequency. Likewise with costs - one can expect a joining fee of around £15 and six-monthly dues of between £25-30. Compare these with commercial courses which cost several hundred pounds for, typically, 2-3 days. What is more, such courses provide neither the continuous follow-up training nor the companionship available with Toastmasters.
A Toastmaster meeting is, naturally, all about speaking. Typically, 3 or 4 prepared speeches of 5-7 minutes or 10-12 minutes will be given. The former will be given by members working to the basic manual and the latter by those working to an advanced manual (more of which later). Each of the speeches will be evaluated by a more-experienced speaker who will give a short analysis of the speech, together with recommendations for improvement. There is also a behind-the-scenes process of mentors whereby more-experienced speakers work with less-experienced speakers to improve their skills on a one-to-one basis.
Most meetings also include a session of impromptu speaking, known as table topics, where all those who are not otherwise speaking get the opportunity to speak for 1-2 minutes on a subject given to them with no notice. The offices of Chairman, Timekeeper, Evaluators, etc. are taken by members in turn to provide the widest possible range of speaking opportunities. There are also regular workshops covering specific areas, such as voice development, speech evaluation and working with video.
The time taken to become a competent speaker varies from person to person, depending on their starting skills and how often they can attend meetings. New members receive a set of educational materials, including a basic training manual which defines 10 assignments covering various aspects of speaking, such as body language, vocal variety and speech structure. Members work at their own pace to complete the manual assignments, whereupon they qualify as a Competent Toastmaster (CTM). This usually takes a couple of years but can take as little as a few months. After completion of the CTM manual there are various advanced manuals which may be tackled. These have assignments which address more specific objectives, such as speaking for television, the entertaining speaker and technical speeches.
People join Toastmasters for various reasons; among them, to prepare for an important speech (back to those weddings!), to overcome nervousness and to enhance their career prospects. Members came from all walks of life. In one London club there are lawyers, musicians, computer consultants, architects, surveyors, journalists, a stand-up comedian, builders, electricians, housewives and many other people, all with the common interest of developing their communications skills. Whatever your background, you can do the same.
To find out more about Toastmasters and get details of the clubs in the UK and Ireland, call the central Toastmasters number 020 7494 1105, quoting the reference "The Eileen and Brian web site".
© Brian Smith 1995, 2006
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