Thursday, December 3, 2015

To Speak or Not to Speak... the Answer is Obvious

I joined Toastmasters two months ago. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but I never dug up the courage to follow through. I thought it would be nerve-wracking, I would be under a lot of pressure to succeed, and I would be out of my league with other speakers.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Toastmasters, it’s an international organization and its club mission statement is “We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.”

Formal speaking in front of a group, large or small, can be intimidating to many people. It certainly was for me. I’ve had to speak in front of groups, and I always get nervous and end up with the “ums” and “uhs” and “you knows” in plentiful supply during my talk.

Finally, at the urging of a friend, I attended my first Toastmaster meeting with a club that was still fairly new. It made me feel better to know many of the members had been attending for months, instead of years. Yet we also have seasoned members who help keep the club running efficiently and effectively and mentor us as we grow.

I make the majority of my living writing and editing. Although I enjoyed the two months of Toastmasters, and intended to keep going, I had to wonder - what does this bring to the table in regard to where I am right now in life?

The answer came to me as I was preparing my first formal speech called the Icebreaker. I had to introduce myself to the audience, letting them know a little about me.

If you haven’t tried to condense your life into a few minutes, let me tell you that it’s more difficult than you might imagine. I’ve had many diverse careers, raised a family, married and divorced, went on several grand adventures, and have many interests - all of those helped shape the person I am today. Narrowing down the focus was challenging.

I was only given four to six minutes for this speech. It seemed like forever when I thought about standing in front of the members for that amount of time. Yet when I actually wrote out my speech and timed myself during practice, I talked for over eight minutes.

Now the tie in to my writing. I had to be super organized, like I do when I’m trying to write a story, stay on task, and make sense of everything I included. During my speech I needed to cut out the extraneous words and thoughts, because I simply didn’t have time to go off on a tangent. When I write I need to trim up the prose, because my readers wouldn’t have patience for my off-the-subject rambling, no matter how brilliant I thought my writing was.

Just as organization is key to an effective presentation, with a clear introduction, body, and summary, organization is also key in fiction and non-fiction writing to trim unnecessary words and keep the story moving.

When I timed my first speech about growing up on the farm, and realized I had to cut a minimum of two minutes off, and preferably more since I wanted to throw in some well-timed pauses for effect, I had some problems deciding what was important and what I could cut.

Are you kidding me, my entire early childhood was important, right? Wouldn’t my audience want to hear about my adventures riding dirt bikes in the pasture, climbing the apricot tree even when we weren’t picking the fruit, going through my grandfather’s old shed and finding decades-old copies of Life and National Geographic?

Here’s where my writing experience helped.

Kill Your Darlings.

Be ruthless. Just because I was in love with a scene or a description or a character, didn’t mean it belonged in my story. Or in my speech.

I thought my first speech went well, considering. I was nervous, had to rely on notes, and needed to speed up at the end to finish within the time limits. It’s going to take practice and time to become proficient at giving speeches, just as it does to become proficient at writing.

Even if I never have to give a formal speech in front of an audience other than my Toastmasters club members, what I’m learning about communication and leadership is invaluable. I can see how, as I become a better speaker, my writing will become clearer and more interesting.

My initial worries about Toastmasters were put to rest after the first meeting, and now after my Icebreaker speech I can safely say that it’s not as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. I don’t feel pressured from other club members - I feel fully supported. Although the long-time members are much better speakers than I am, no one makes me feel like I’m out of their league. I’m part of the club, supported, mentored, and encouraged every step of the way.

Not to mention it’s also - dare I say it - fun!