Toastmasters: Better than Psychotherapy and Cheaper than a Ferrari

From birth, we’re taught to compartmentalize, to separate our personal life from our professional life, our hobbies from our careers. We’re asked to categorize sex, gender, class, race and culture, placing each and every person in a tightly closed box. It’s a world where every item has a name, every color has a number, every animal has a phylum. In short, it’s suffocating.

Our lives have been fractionalized into a tiny, minuscule parts that are neither relevant nor coherent to the way we live from day to day. But what if they could be…

Several years ago, a close friend of mine challenged me to join Toastmasters by stating with unwavering certainty, “You totally belong here Gabriella”.

“I belong in a public speaking organization? You must be smoking crack,” I replied. “I neither care, nor know how to speak in public. That’s not my forte, and I seriously can’t be bothered.”

“Give it a try, just once. That’s all I’m asking.”

Weeks later, I eventually caved in and sat among 40 highly extraverted people in a small, cramped meeting room above a bank. And despite the uncanny feeling that I was trapped in some bizarre threesome between an alcoholics anonymous meeting, a corporate boardroom and an amateur improv group, I was hooked!

For the first time in my life, I was challenged to look among an audience of strangers and admit that I was scared to be me. Terrified really. I feared that my ideas were stupid and my feelings were inconsequential, that everything I embodied was a pit of failure. The irony was that no one — not one person — ever reflected that back to me.

Over the course of a few sessions, I quickly understood that communication was not only my passion, but that the skills I was acquiring were applicable to my everyday life!

These weren’t just presentation skills, these were the building blocks of a happy human existence!

Allow me to share the top 5 ways that Toastmasters has impacted my everyday life:

  1. Power Pose! Stated simply, it’s a position of strength when you’re on stage. Your back is straight, your arms are to your side and your eyes are engaged on the individual. As woman, I can’t tell you how important this is. Many of us have been socially conditioned to hide, to shrink from the world, from leadership, from ourselves. Our eyes avert being “seen”, our arms cross to hide “imperfect” bodies, our shoulders slouch to avoid confrontation. We become masters of invisibility, of transparency. Public speaking pushes us to stand tall, to be confident, and to approach the world head on.
  2. Key Message. On more than one occasion, I’ve allowed my brain to take a sabbatical, only to find a neurotic, emotionally unstable, cracked out ego in control. During these “rare” moments, conversations take a hallucinogenic twist where adjectives, adverbs and guttural sounds replace nouns and verbs. What could be a rational conversation about a my mom forgetting my birthday turns into, “Then…really, ahhh, you know when…it’s just….you know…mad…because...whatever!, doesn’t matter, I’m fine!” You’ll notice there’s no introduction, body or conclusion to my message. There’s nothing! I’m saying…nothing! A great speech must have all 3 elements, but so too must any conversation in our life. If we don’t know the key message, it’s time to rewrite the “speech”.
  3. Unadulterated Compassion. It’s easy to bitch, to react without a second thought, “Jesus, you’re so impatient! Can’t you wait for 2 seconds while I complete my sentence? Seriously!” We do this all the time, either in our heads or to those around us. We harshly criticize the world because it gives us a compass as to what we want and need in our lives….or maybe what we want to avoid. It’s our mirror. What’s not easy to do is to share our thoughts and feelings in a way that encourages trust and opens the door for dialogue and change. By stepping into a speaker’s shoes, the audience, or the exhausted clerk from the supermarket who hasn’t slept in 3 days because she’s working 15 hour shifts, we zero in on what’s important. What truly matters. And then craft our message with their feelings in mind. The message shouldn’t shift, but the way in which we frame it does.
  4. Truth from Fiction. I’ve heard thousands of political pundits, used car salesmen and marketing gurus sell their magic potions of happiness. “If you buy this car for 9,999 euros, with the bikini clad woman lounged awkwardly on the hood, your hair will grow back, your sexual prowess will increase and your annual income will triple! This is a once in a lifetime offer, so buy today!” Deep within all of us, there’s a bullshit meter. It may be a bit rusty from nonuse, but it exists. Oftentimes in public speaking, we assume we can pull the wool over the audience, sharing false emotions or speeches we don’t believe in. The irony is that they’re clever, very clever, and they may not know why they think you’re full of shit, but they’re not swayed. Ensuring that you truly believe what you’re saying is key to a great speech. Equally true is knowing when you’re not being 100% honest with people in your own life, or more importantly, yourself. Because in the end, the truth is going to sneak out one way or another.
  5. Unconditional Trust. You can’t prepare for life, can you? Sure you can do you research, but you have no guarantee of what’s going happen from one moment to the next. It’s a game of Russian Roulette. In Toastmasters, you’re trained not only in prepared speeches, but improv — two minute “on the fly” storytelling. These stories must impact the audience, be believable and leave a lasting impression! This is NOT easy, because to be good at improv, you need to trust yourself, to believe in yourself. These skills are no different from acing a job interview, a first date or bungee jumping into the Amazon River (hello Piranhas!). It’s a matter of trust, and the more we can cultivate this skill, the greater potential we have of achieving our goals.

In the end, we’re not inanimate objects. We can’t separate our lives into perfectly stacked cubes that don’t interconnect, that aren’t impacted by everything around us. We’re human, which means that everything interconnects, that our lives are constantly moving, shifting and communicating. The more I can find synergy between these, some level of balance, the happier I am.

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