In the beginning…..
I attended my first Toastmasters meeting when I was 18, on the suggestion of my boss, as I was extremely shy and the description wallflower would have definitely applied to me. I believe I attended a grand total of 3 meetings. I never did give a speech (that I recall) and decided at the time it was not for me. In hindsight I wished I had stuck with it, but realistically at that age you don’t know what you want or where you want to go in life.
A bit more than a decade ago I ventured forth once again to try Toastmasters. I found a club locally to me (at the time) in New London, NH. I attended one meeting and was somewhat interested, but I didn't think it was necessarily the place for me, for while everyone was very friendly, I was by the far the youngest person at the meeting (by about 40 years) and it struck me as being quite formal at the time. Everyone clapping, shaking hands and “Thank you Mr. Toastmaster!”
There was one woman there who was starting a third? fourth? career as a personal chef (not culinary trained just someone who liked to cook) and she gave her speech about making a dish, along with props of a whisk and a large bowl. For some reason that totally put me off — my former life as a professional chef rearing its ugly and egotistical head, or perhaps because her talk was making me cringe internally. It was a very good speech and well-presented; but in the same lines of how I thought the book and movie “Julie and Julia” went, when someone talks about cutting corners and having bad sanitation skills in the kitchen, it makes my hackles go up. Once a Chef always a Chef, as my husband likes to pick on me about.
About 4 years ago (August of 2010) my family had just moved back to Connecticut. I didn’t know a soul and I wanted to get out beyond my comfort zone. For the past few years prior I had been giving seminars to teach social media to groups. Talking to groups of 10 to 15 people didn't faze me, but I was being asked to go to conferences and speak in front of hundreds. The tipping point came for me when I went to a conference, and was asked to fill in for a keynote speaker who couldn't make it due to the weather. People told me afterwards that everything went very well... but standing up there in front of almost five hundred people and drawing a complete blank on what I was going to talk about, for what was probably only a couple of minutes but seemed to me like an eternity, is something I remember well. I think if I was in a Toastmasters club at the time who fined members a penny for ums and ahs, the jar would have been overflowing as well.
What have I gotten out of Toastmasters? Confidence! I can now speak in front of hundreds of people and feel comfortable doing so. What else? The knowledge that I have become a better speaker and I can benchmark that through conference reviews that I have gotten back over the years. The best thing I have gotten from Toastmasters though by far is good friends. Since we have moved back here, my circle of people that I hang out with the most are other Toastmasters, some from the clubs I belong to, some from clubs all over the country that I have met over the last few years. People join Toastmasters for all kinds of reasons, not just to gain more confidence or to become a better speaker, sometimes their bosses encourage them to come, sometimes because they have gotten a promotion and now need to give presentations to staff.
How to find a club to join?
Toastmasters is in itself a great organization in that everyone works at their own pace. There is no pressure to “do”. People not familiar with Toastmasters just think it’s about public speaking, but don’t know about the leadership aspect. They don’t know that speeches are evaluated and your fellow club members will give you suggestions for improvement.
I would suggest if someone is considering joining Toastmasters (and Toastmasters come from every walk of life and every profession under the Sun), visit a few clubs before joining. Every club has its own dynamics and its own strengths and challenges. If a club doesn't click for you, try a different one: each is unique.