It’s the most common fear in the United States.  Whether it’s just the nerves and the sweaty palms, a dislike of getting out there, or a full-on panic at the thought, public speaking makes many of us gulp.

According to, 74% of Americans have a fear of public speaking.  Phobia is considered a debilitating fear, one that absolutely paralyzes us and causes us to go to extreme lengths to avoid the situation.  For people who merely dislike public speaking, rather than having a true fear of it, you can overcome your nervousness without seeking professional help.  After all, how does one get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.

Most of us took speech in high school or college.  We had to give presentations in class.  We have to lead meetings at work or with clients.  Does the thought of getting up in front of your classmates or co-workers turn you into a nervous wreck?  Were you afraid you would be laughed at, that you would freeze up and all your hours of practice would be for naught?  There is a fairly inexpensive organization you can join that will help you grow your leadership and communication skills.  It was started in the 1920s and now has nearly 300,000 members in more than 14,000 clubs across 122 countries.

I’d heard of Toastmasters, but I didn’t join until after grad school.  After a false start trying to attend a meeting (I later found out that particular club was on its last legs, highly disorganized and with unmotivated officers) I found a second club in my area.  It was a fairly young club, established about a year prior, with enthusiastic members and willing officers.  It was also a small club.  We were lucky to have ten people show up to a meeting.  But the members were supportive and kind, and I soon found myself giving my first speech, called the Icebreaker.

I quickly learned that Toastmasters is a nurturing atmosphere.  Everyone there is motivated to improve themselves, and as such, is open to guidance and suggestions and eager to provide help.  It took me four speeches before I could leave the safety of the lectern and speak to the audience with no “protective barrier.”  As a small club, it was easy for me to sign up for meeting roles.  I learned to appreciate the value of a silent pause and not try to fill with “um” or “errr.”  Indeed, I have become more attuned to hearing the uhs and ums of people around me.  I have learned how to think on my feet with Table Topics and to give constructive feedback as an evaluator.

I also learned that half the job is showing up consistently.  I was asked six months after joining to fill in as VP of Membership, as the person who was handling it left the club due to work demands.  As a shy person, this was quite the challenge for me, as I had to greet guests as they attended the meetings and talk to them about what Toastmasters can offer.  I had an epiphany.  These people were walking into a strange situation, knowing no one and unsure of what to expect.  What wonderful practice for me to put them at ease and show my enthusiasm!

Now, about a year after joining, I have my Competent Communicator Award and have one more task to do to earn my Competent Leadership award.  I was elected VP of Public Relations and am learning how to get our club more exposure in the area.  Through publications in our local paper and an online presence with Facebook and our club website, our membership is growing.  My son has joined and it is quite fun to watch him work with his mentor and plan and practice his speeches.

What I’ve learned is that we more we do, the better we get.  If so many people have glossophobia, think how impressive you will be if you know how to speak passionately and superbly.  Toastmasters is a great venue to practice, practice, practice.


One on One

I believe as a society we are a giving people.  The Oklahoma City bombing, September 11, Katrina, Sandy, the Japanese tsunami, the Boston Marathon attack…we are all willing to step up and donate money, blood, time, whatever we can, to help.

What can stymie us is the enormity of the event and the assumption that our small donation will do little to help.  Certainly a lot of littles add up to a whole bunch of big.  But we can miss a sense of connection.  This is why I like the one on one giving.  You know right away you have directly helped someone.

I’m reminded of the story of the starfish.  A huge storm had washed up thousands of starfish onto a beach, and a little girl was carefully working her way along the sand, picking up starfish and throwing them back in the ocean.  An onlooker chided her, saying there were too many starfish, she was wasting her time, she couldn’t possibly make any difference.  The girl picked up another starfish and tossed it into the water, responding, “I made a difference to that one.”

Dave Ramsey, the financial guru, says money is to be used for three things, to spend, to save, and to give.  I heard on the news in 2011 that people were anonymously paying off Kmart lay-aways and the concept truly tickled me.  It inspired me to hit my local Kmart at Christmastime and pay off a stranger’s lay-away.  I tell the clerk how much I’m willing to pay, she pulls up a matching lay-away, and with a swipe of my debit card I’m on my way and I have made someone’s day for just a few dollars and a few moments of my time.

Last Christmas, when I saw the receipt, I was immediately thrown back to when the children were young and we were struggling ourselves.  The remaining total was about $65, and the last payment made was for $15.  At that rate the lay-away would not be paid off by Christmas.  I remember those lean days, when we would roll quarters to fill our gas tanks and the air conditioning broke and we couldn’t get it fixed.  Things have gotten easier as careers have grown and education has enhanced, and $100 is not as painful as it used to be.  But I understand what I may consider a small gesture may mean the world to someone else.

This past weekend it happened again.  An e-mail went out to my breast cancer support group, calling on all Pink Ladies to do what they could for a fellow survivor with no family who had just had surgery.  I said I would call and on Sunday I gave the lady, “Susie,” a jingle.  I introduced myself and asked how she was doing.

Alarmingly, she said she was in a great deal of pain and bleeding from her wound site.  I told her to call her surgeon and I would give her a ride to the hospital.  What I thought would be a quick phone chat turned into a trip to the extended stay hotel where Susie was staying and getting her to the emergency room.  Another Pink Ribbon Lady met me there, as I could not stay, and while Susie will need to follow up with her doctor, she did not require admittance to the hospital.

My sister in law said once that angels are everywhere, and that sometimes it’s your turn to be an angel.  I mention these stories not to solicit praise, but to point out that opportunities to help our fellow man are all around us.  We don’t have to wait for the next disaster or terrorist attack.  Leave a $9 tip on an $11 restaurant tab.  Stop to help someone stranded on the side of the road.  Pay the toll of the car behind you.  Helping someone else makes me feel good and sometimes I feel a bit guilty, that in helping someone, I’m also doing it for me.  So be selfish…help somebody!