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Public Speaking – The Fun Way

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“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”
—Isak Dinesen

I probably don’t need to repeat something most of us have heard before, but I’ll do it anyway: In Gallup’s yearly “fear poll” that asks people what they fear most in life, the fear of public speaking almost always finds its way into the top three, along with other horrific concerns like spiders and snakes and getting on airplanes. In fact, despite its impressive competition, speaking in front of other people is quite often listed at number one.

Well, you may be thinking, that’s fine and dandy, but what’s it got to do with me? I have never been called upon to speak in public, and I probably never will. Hmm. Don’t be too sure of that. As citizens of the world, we are often asked to “stand up and say something” at business meetings, PTA meetings, group job interviews, book club gatherings, residents meetings, and so on.

But instead of sweating buckets, and shaking in your boots, hoping that you will not be chosen, why not have the opposite attitude that you WANT to be chosen, and that you WANT to speak?

There is a painless and enjoyable way in which anyone can achieve this, and it is called Toastmasters International.

Toastmasters was established by Dr. Ralph Smedley almost one hundred years ago. I have been a member of a Toastmasters club in Yokohama, Japan for almost a year now, and I am enjoying it immensely. Not only that, I am making darn good progress. I can now stand up to speak in front of large groups of people (40–50 at times), without wetting my pants doing so; I can deliver a seven-minute speech that will make people laugh; I can do a two-minute impromptu, no problem; I can pull off decent three-minute evaluations.

But believe me, I was always Gallup’s best customer—shy and terrified. Of course, as Gallup knows, I am not the only one. And you aren’t either. In fact, even famous, eloquent speakers start off the same way—in total fear.

Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking says: “Mark Twain, the first time he stood up to lecture, felt as if his mouth was filled with cotton and his pulse was speeding for some prize cup.” This is quite typical. Mark Twain was probably at one time the funniest man alive. He had no problems writing or speaking. But public speaking—AT FIRST—terrified him.

So what then is the secret to overcoming that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach? Experience. Only experience.

It’s interesting that I mention Dr. Smedley and Dale Carnegie in the same breath here. They both established their own speaking groups at around the same time (1920s) and both started what they were doing through the YMCA, but in different parts of the country.

Of the two groups, Toastmasters is definitely the more relaxed and enjoyable of the two. This is because it is entirely non-profit and non-professional. Membership fees are minimal, and all evaluations are peer evaluations. In other words, there are no licensed instructors to guide you—just some very good manuals, the members of your club, an assigned mentor, and the process of trial and error.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I think it was Dr. Smedley’s good fortune to have been born with a huge schnozzola of a nose. Whereas the dapper Carnegie quickly found ways to turn his public speaking lessons into an image-based goldmine, Smedley’s unseemly nose prevented him from doing so.

And thank goodness for that!

Toastmasters International has served over 4 million people over the years. Currently, there are 230,000 members in 11,500 clubs, in ninety-two countries. New York City alone hosts more than one hundred clubs! There is definitely a club near you.

I highly recommend you give Toastmasters a try. At the very least, you’ll have a good time. And if you’re lucky and like it and continue with it you’ll find yourself, within a year, feeling like a totally new person!

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