It has often been said that the number one fear for millions of people is public speaking. Some folks would rather jump from a cliff than to speak in front of an audience. What if you have specific career goals in mind but your fear of public speaking is holding you back? Where can you turn? For thousands like myself, the answer is Toastmasters.
The Toastmasters organization is a best-kept secret. It is an international educational network of clubs with over 352,000 members in over 16,400 clubs in 141 countries. The self-paced program provides a supportive environment where one can learn the skills needed to become competent communicators, engaging public speakers and effective leaders. It is also a very diverse organization, and members come from all walks of life, from doctors and lawyers, to homemakers and students. Even if you think you’re already a great orator, Toastmasters can help you to become even more charismatic and confident.
When I look back to see how far I’ve come since first joining a Toastmasters Club in 2011, I am genuinely amazed. I was always good at writing speeches, but my delivery was not on point because of nervousness. When delivering a speech, I would rarely glance away from the paper before me. I’d read the speech practically word for word, and use the podium as a crutch, too afraid to move away from it.
Whenever I’d attend lectures, I would admire speakers who captivated their audiences without even a note in hand. I’d sit before them and admire their lecturing skills. It wasn’t until I joined Toastmasters that I learned how to prepare and deliver a speech without reading it. I also discovered how to take command of the stage, speak with a good vocal variety, and use body language.
Leadership skills were something that Toastmasters also helped me to enhance that I acquired by volunteering for various roles during meetings and at contest competitions. I was able to step out of my comfort zone and would often challenge myself to give more speeches and take on committee positions. The organization has even helped me get over my fear of singing in public— a great achievement for me.
I am now active in two clubs—Hudson Toastmasters in my hometown of Bayonne, NJ and I also belong to a corporate one in New York City. It’s important to find a Toastmasters that is welcoming and supportive. It is also in your best interest to visit various clubs to see which one works best for you.
One such prominent Toastmaster member is Darnelle Richardson, 62 and a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM). Richardson’s title is the highest level of accomplishment one can achieve within the organization and earned by less than one percent of the Toastmasters International members worldwide. Darnelle, who is originally from Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean is currently a Program Director and a member of two clubs: New Heights Toastmasters, and Gold Coast Advanced Toastmasters both located in New Jersey. Darnelle, a real dynamo, shared with 50BOLD, how Toastmasters can help folks overcome their fear of public speaking and release this hindrance baggage once and for all.
50BOLD: Public speaking is a fear so many people grapple with, why do you think most don’t seek help?
Richardson: I believe there are several reasons why most people do not seek help. Even though some are fearful of speaking publicly, they do not consider this a major problem, especially, if they are not required to speak in public on a regular basis. People often turn down an opportunity to address an audience by simply proclaiming they get nervous when everybody is watching them. It’s easy for them to recommend someone else for the task. I also believe that some people do not realize there are avenues whereby they can get help. If excuses to not speak publicly are always accepted, people won’t consider seeking help until they’re placed in positions where they can no longer offer excuses.
50BOLD: Why did you join Toastmasters and what has been your experience?
Richardson: I joined Toastmasters in 2006 because I was enrolled in an online public speaking class that required me to send one or two videos presenting a speech before the class ended. I felt that joining Toastmasters would give me the opportunity to practice in front of other people and prepare me for the video presentations. Joining Toastmasters has been one of best professional decisions I have made in my life. It has not only given me opportunities to hone my communication skills, but it has enhanced my leadership skills immensely. Once I became involved in my club and started learning more about the Toastmasters organization, I realized there were many opportunities for leadership growth. I have served as a club President, Vice-President of Education, Vice President of Membership, Area Governor, and Division Governor. I have also had the challenging opportunity of starting a club and working with another Toastmaster to start an advanced club. My best experience has been that of the Vice-President of Education. I enjoy helping new Toastmasters become acclimated to the world of public speaking.
50BOLD: How can Toastmasters help those who have a great fear of public speaking?
Richardson: The Toastmasters organization provides many opportunities to help individuals build confidence in their communication skills. Every member has an opportunity to speak in front of a small group to contribute to successful club meetings. As members assume small speaking roles within the club, they eventually realize that their fear of speaking in front of audiences begins to dissipate. Being in a supportive environment and receiving positive feedback from other Toastmasters is motivating and gratifying.
50BOLD: Besides gaining communications and leadership skills, what else can one expect from joining a Toastmasters Club?
Richardson: There is diversity in Toastmasters. All clubs are comprised of people from various backgrounds who enrich the clubs with their culture and expertise. Besides learning how to communicate effectively and acquiring leadership skills, members form friendships and gain newfound knowledge from each other that is beneficial to their own daily lives.
50BOLD: What can someone do if they are interested in knowing more about Toastmasters or joining a club?
Richardson: If someone is interested in learning more about Toastmasters, I would suggest that the individual visit the Toastmasters website at www.toastmasters.org and begin clicking on the links that would give them information about the organization. They will also be able to read about the experiences of many Toastmasters. First and foremost there should be a desire of wanting to improve their communication skills. An individual should peruse the website to find a club that is convenient to attend. Some Toastmasters join clubs close to their workplaces so that they would have no trouble getting to meetings on time. Some companies have corporate clubs where members attend during their lunch hour. Community clubs generally meet evenings or weekends.
50BOLD: So Toastmasters’s learn-by-doing program appears to be the answer for those who need to find their voice.
Richardson: Joining Toastmasters has been one of the best decisions I have made in my professional life. Even though I joined Toastmasters to gain an educational experience, my learning experience has enabled me to evaluate myself to determine how to improve my visibility in the workplace and how to better interact with other professionals. Toastmasters allows members to propel themselves into a mode of higher order thinking, as they strive to reach their goals and develop new pathways for their own success.