WHEN I told a friend I was going to a Toastmaster meeting, he put his pint down and shook his head disapprovingly.
“They’re all a bunch of fuddy-duddies who play crown-green bowls,” he said. “You’ll be bored senseless. You won’t last a wet week.”
It was with trepidation that I climbed the stairs to attend my first meeting at Tralee Toastmasters in Kerry, but, contrary to my friend’s warning, there was a mix of ages in the room.
The president, a woman in her mid-20s, chaired the proceedings more effectively than most CEOs I have worked with, and the meeting started on time, at 8pm.
I was bemused by the grand titles — topics-master, general evaluator, ah/um counter — but I let the entertainment unfold.
Madam president outlined the menu: table topics (impromptu speaking) for starters. The main course would be a selection of three prepared speeches.
After coffee, to finish, more table topics and an evaluation, with positive feedback.
“Don’t worry, guests aren’t asked to speak,” a member beside me whispered reassuringly as the topics-master rose to his feet. “But you can add on to a topic, if you wish.”
The topics-master peered round the room before fixing his gaze on a middle-aged lady at the back. “Would you care to share with us a moment in your life when you were embarrassed, Maureen?” he said.
Maureen stood up.
She told us about the evening she sat at a parish dinner, in the company of a well-known bishop.
The bishop turned to her during the meal and said: “I think my leg has gone to sleep, I can’t feel it.” He was rubbing his leg vigorously to stimulate the blood flow. “I think bishop,” Maureen said, “that’s my leg you’re rubbing.”
The first of the prepared speeches was by a young man. He told us about the exotic locations where he had scuba-dived.
He was followed by a middle-aged man, who told of his experience as a father-of-the-bride and gave his top tips on how to prepare for the wedding day.
The final speech, by a woman in her 20s, was about the fear of speaking in front of an audience you have never met before: “Turn up at the venue early,” the speaker said. “It will help you establish a rapport with the audience, by meeting and greeting them as they arrive, and they will seem a little friendlier when you begin your speech.”
After the coffee break, the toastmaster adopted a different tack with a seasonal set of questions: “what type of lights did you like best at Christmas?” he asked.
One person said they liked the icicle-shaped lights that hung from the eves of houses.
Another said they liked the strawberry-shaped, mini lights that twinkled on and off, while a third preferred the coloured globe lights on the Christmas tree.
When the three speakers had finished, there was still one hand raised at the back of the room, to which the Toastmaster gestured. An elderly man rose to address the topic.
“The lights I like best at Christmas,” he said “are the tail-lights of the visitor’s cars going back down my driveway,” he said.
Looking back on my first meeting, I was impressed by the high standard of the contributions and the warmth of the welcome. The speeches were interesting, the evaluations encouraging, and members young, and more mature, were keen to contribute on a wide range of interesting table topics. Just as importantly, for me, though, was the atmosphere — it was electric. Spurred on by the excitement, I rose to speak for one minute, to add on to a table topic about soap operas.
When I sat down I was shaking, but I knew I belonged.
I came to Tralee Toastmasters to improve my communication and leadership skills and I succeeded, but I got far more than I expected.
Standing in front of a class, or a group of business people, is now a far less onerous task and I learned exactly what to do during those awkward silences, or when the presentation goes awry.
I discovered these secrets by listening to other members and watching how they tackle the same problems in a safe, Toastmasters environment.
But more rewarding than my own personal development has been building other members’ confidence.
Seeing someone you have mentored deliver a first-class speech or evaluation is just like being a proud parent watching your child shine — it really is a most fulfilling experience.
Since 1924, 4m people around the world have become more confident public speakers and leaders because of Toastmasters.
Toastmasters International has 292,000 members in 14,350 clubs in the 122 countries that make up the global network of meeting locations.
Tralee Toastmasters Club was established in 1993. It has 30 active members, who are of a diverse range of ages and occupations.
Tralee Toastmasters meet in O’Donnell’s bar, Mounthawk, on the first and third Monday of the month. The meeting starts at 8pm.