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 statisticbrain.com, 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.