How Toastmasters cured me of the desire to speak in public

I thought I'd finally turn into the confident, assured speaker I'd dreamed of being. I was wrong

By Mary Mann
Published August 25, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
    (<a href=''>Pojoslaw</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Pojoslaw via Shutterstock)

At the beginning of my first copywriting job, I was charged with presenting the latest news from our department at Wednesday morning staff meetings. They were basic, even boring updates—marketing materials, blog posts, brochures—but the way I delivered them you'd think they were eulogies. “Um, so, the summer magazine placements, um, are, um...” My voice would quiver. My eyes would fill with tears. Unable to make eye contact, I would stare so hard into the upper left-corner of the conference room that other people looked there too, just to make sure they weren't missing anything. While they were distracted, I would clear my throat and say the rest as fast as possible to get it over with: “arecompletethankyou!”

This anxiety wasn't new. I've dreaded public speaking for as long as I can remember. Kindergarten Show & Tell was never fun for me—I wasn't like my friend Sarah, who brought in her pet turtle and had so much to say about it that Mrs. Rollins practically had to yank her off the metaphorical stage with a wooden cane. Instead, I said a few incoherent words about my stuffed koala, trembled violently, and sprinted back to my seat. My third-grade teacher thought a lisp was the source of my “public speaking issue,” and so, every Tuesday until the end of sixth grade, I was pulled out of the classroom at one o'clock for an hour of speech therapy.  After umpteen hours of “she sells sea shells by the seashore,” however, I was not only still scared of public speaking, I was wary of speaking, period—at least in front of grown-ups. “Mary has a shyness problem,” clucked my teachers, and in middle school it only got worse. Mrs. Harris thought it would be fun for us to rewrite song lyrics using material from the books we'd read that year; when it was my turn to sing a Shakespeare-inspired version of “We Didn't Start the Fire” I panicked and cried, then spent the rest of the afternoon in the nurse's office with a “stomachache.” My stomach did hurt, but the source of the knots and cramps wasn't cafeteria food or flu. It was shame.

When we all took career tests in high school, my friends were proclaimed future teachers, actors, even CEOs. I was advised to pursue office administration. “It's not glamorous, but it's not a bad choice for introverted people,” said the career counselor. “Although you could work on that. Just takes practice.”

Armed with the notion that I could change myself, but aware that such efforts would feel like torture, I avoided public speaking as much as possible in college, even if I did so guiltily. Never did I run for any office in any club. I chose classes that required written papers instead of final presentations. For money I worked at a restaurant, but remained behind the counter, making pizzas with an overweight alcoholic named Tony instead of waitressing.

But despite my best efforts to avoid speaking in front of groups, only a few years later here I was, a regular feature in a conference room, flushing and stammering over the most basic presentations.

This hadn't been in the job description when I was hired, of that I was sure. To my ebullient and outgoing boss, whose favorite color was leopard-print, the task may have been such a non-issue that she didn't bother to mention it until my second day. As we filled our coffee mugs side by side in the office kitchenette, she dropped the bomb: “Oh, I almost forgot, you'll have to give updates on what you're working on at staff meetings—no big deal, just a quick, report. Like two minutes.”

These became the two most dreaded minutes of my week.

As terrified as I was about standing to speak in front of new coworkers, it certainly didn't help that my subject matter was so dull: I spent all day, every day, fiddling with the proper placement of semicolons in ad copy, and even I found the stuff boring—I couldn't imagine how my coworkers felt, and I couldn't bear to look at their faces and find out, though I once thought I heard Iris from HR stifle a yawn. In my experience, "Mad Men" greatly exaggerates the glamour of copywriting. There was no chance that my content would make up for my delivery.

For the first half of every meeting, I couldn't listen because my turn was coming. Then, after every mangled presentation, I escaped my shame by tuning out and imagining a different me. A me who loved to speak in front of other people. A me who inspired. A me who sparkled. Like Gwyneth Paltrow's character in "Sliding Doors"—who simultaneously lives two lives in different versions of reality, one in which she becomes a successful party planner and the other in which she delivers sandwiches to office buildings—this me lived on somewhere in a parallel universe, building a beautiful future for herself with her exquisite public speaking skills.

Immediately, I began sleeping badly on Tuesday nights in anticipation of the next morning's meeting. Too hot, I'd throw off the covers, and then too cold, I'd pull them back on, over and over, all the while visualizing all the times I'd ever embarrassed myself while speaking publicly.

In the daylight hours, I labored to convince myself that having to speak in public once a week was no big deal. It wasn't like I was broke or homeless or starving. “On the scale of world tragedies, this is... not even on that scale,” I whispered to myself in the mirror of the office bathroom. But then I stood up in front of all my coworkers and suddenly there was no world. No scale of tragedies. It was just me, encapsulated within a moment frozen in time in which everyone would always be watching me, and I would always be humiliating myself, forever.

This wouldn't be a problem for "Sliding Doors" me, I thought. So the question was: how could I become her?

The first person I turned to for advice was my boyfriend, who used to take a Benadryl before big meetings. “It just sort of...relaxes you,” he said with a shrug. “And it's over-the-counter.” So the next Wednesday I took two tiny pink pills, then another one, just in case. On my way to work I felt myself dozing. I spent my hour-long commute anxiously imagining myself sleeping in the conference room, and as soon as I got to work I drank two coffees in quick succession. Panic on Benadryl is a roar muffled by layers of cotton balls. I was so busy wondering if the combination of caffeine and diphenhydramine could kill me that I didn't remember what I was supposed to say, and my presentation was practically incoherent.

Next I turned to a yoga teacher friend who recommended meditating. I squeezed my eyes shut every night for several weeks, hoping to empty my mind of fear and flood it with quiet confidence. But however calm I managed to be on Thursdays or Sundays, my fear always returned on Tuesday nights. On the advice of a friend in marketing I even tried visualization, picturing myself entrancing my coworkers with a powerful presentation: “Everyone,” I would begin, making eye contact as I strode to the front of the conference room, the morning sun illuminating me like a stained glass saint, “the new round of ads is complete! Let me take you on a tour ...” But the scenario was just too unbelievable. The striding woman was charming, entrancing, assertive. A woman with whom I had nothing in common. Someone I could only watch but never be.

There was nowhere left to turn. One dark winter Wednesday evening, I caved and called my mom.

My mom doesn't give me advice, not since I went to college anyway, because nine out of ten times we'll just argue about it. Though I'd complained about the staff meetings, she hadn't offered anything more substantial than sympathetic sounds. But once I asked for help, she was quick to offer a solution: “Why don't you try Toastmasters?” she said. “It's this public speaking club. It really helped your aunt.”

According to the website, Toastmasters is “where leaders are made.” The Internet is rife with testimonials from people who got involved with the organization in order to surmount fears similar to my own. “When I first joined Toastmasters, I was afraid to get up in front of an audience!” read one such. “Now I look forward to getting up in front of an audience!!” They might have been a little heavy on the exclamation marks and redundant language, but still, these people seemed to have become their better "Sliding Doors" selves: confident, triumphant, profoundly changed.

It was tempting, even though I was wary of any sort of joining, especially of the “let's all get better together” variety: leadership conferences, lifestyle gurus, group therapy. Distant family members have fallen for pyramid schemes and even joined cults—some cousins followed a religion that only allowed them to receive pencils for their birthdays—so I always fretted that I was extra-susceptible. Even the trappings of my regular yoga studio made me nervous: teachers who spoke like fortune cookies, meditations on the power of transformation, a preponderance of Lululemon yoga mats that exhort everyone to floss and travel; drink water and live by the sea. The pressure to be forever becoming a better self was exhausting.

But in the end I decided to try it. I was not immune to the appeal of a “fix.” I thought I wanted to be better than I was. And I wanted to believe that a group could do that for me.

For two weeks I psyched myself up, and finally, one slushy Tuesday evening, I showed up in front of a nondescript building and followed the paper signs to the room where the Toastmasters meetings were held. My heart sped up as I opened the door and stepped right into my own anxiety, a state in which I'm hyper-aware of everything: from the padded folding chairs to the chintz curtains; the preponderance of people in suits to the extraordinary height of the man who handed me the sign-in sheet.

After signing in, I found a seat next to a guy in his mid-thirties. He introduced himself and informed me that he would be giving his CC2 speech that night. CC, he explained, is shorthand for Competent Communicator—a comforting phrase, implying managed expectations. The CC Manual (which paying members receive) contains a series of speech projects. The first, CC1, is an icebreaker, while CC2 focuses on writing and giving a speech with structure, and so on, all the way to level ten—Competent Communicator status.

“Don't worry,” he said, probably in response to the fear on my face. “You probably won't have to speak today. The only time that guests ever have to speak is maybe at the beginning, during table topics. But those are easy. The Toastmaster asks a question and you just talk for like two minutes.”

“Two minutes?” I squeaked. It would be just like the staff meetings, only here,  there was no telling what I'd have to talk about.

All the chairs in the room were occupied. A guy with large, anxious eyes stood at the front of the room and cleared his throat. The gentle buzz died down and in perfectly enunciated words, he introduced himself as the president of this Toastmasters chapter, welcomed us, and ceded the floor to that evening's Toastmaster. It was time for table topics.

The topic of the day was Fourth of July, and the questions were of the basic, middle school essay variety: What's your favorite Fourth of July tradition? What was the best Fourth of July concert you've ever been to? What's your favorite barbeque food, and why? As each question was asked my anxiety surged, and as each name was called that wasn't mine, it ebbed. My confidence grew as table topics wound down. They wouldn't call on me. Too bad—I could have been great, like "Sliding Doors" me, I could have...

“The last question is: Would you rather spend the Fourth of July with family or friends? And answering this one will be...” the Toastmaster looked down at the list in his hand then looked up and, with his face void of recognition, said: “Mary.”

I felt a familiar tingling—like fizzy soda flowing through my veins. Bumping people's knees and mumbling apologies, I made my way to the front of the room. With the mindset of someone who's terrified of heights but who's already paid to go skydiving, I braced myself and dove right in: “Um, well, let's see, family or friends. Well, uh, you know, my family is pretty far away, um, so I guess, you know...”

I paused. This was worse than a staff meeting; at least there my speech-making skills were not on trial—I doubted anyone cared about the copywriting updates, much less about how I presented them. But here, thirty faces looked at me expectantly, rooting for me to triumph over the power of the ums, uhs, and you knows that garbled my speech.

“So anyway, um, I'd probably stay here, um, in New York, you know, with friends. Uhh...Thanks!”

There was a round of perfunctory applause as I rushed back to my seat, cheeks aflame, knees shaking. Like yoga or AA, affirmation is a crucial aspect of Toastmasters—poorly given speeches like mine receive the same applause as perfectly delivered ones, making this both the best and the worst possible audience. In my misery, I envisioned "Sliding Doors" me bowing to applause she'd actually earned.

There were more speeches. More enthusiasm. The room swelled with a collective devotion to public speaking. Everyone wanted to be the best. Everyone got applause as if they were. The only criticism all night was for certain speakers to project their voices and “utilize the stage.”

I had thought that public speaking skills were all I wanted too, but as I witnessed all the nervous speeches on inane topics followed by dutiful cheering, I began to doubt my intentions. Like Zorba the Greek eating buckets of cherries, his favorite fruit, and then never wanting cherries again, I felt inundated by shy people trying to “get better,” and slightly sick of the whole scene. "Sliding Doors" me felt so out of reach that I'd only thought about her life as something glowing and perfect. But would public speaking skills really make life that much richer, fuller, shinier—all the promises of a shampoo commercial fulfilled on a daily basis? More importantly, was the easy confidence and charisma that I had dreamed of even attainable for me? After all, I'd been speaking in front of a group every Wednesday for nearly half a year, and I hadn't gotten any better. Maybe that was because I simply didn't like it.

At the end of the meeting everyone found out how they'd done. The Time Keeper informed me that I had spoken for less than half of my allotted two minutes. The Grammarian, who counts all the ums and uhs in every speech, reported that in my 40-odd seconds onstage I had incurred four ums and two uhs.

Nodding at their words, I surprised myself by not caring. Instead, I felt empty, spent... clean.

The urge to be great at public speaking had never come from me. Like a person who dislikes the outdoors but tries to be into camping, or who isn't fond of large parties but goes anyway for fear of missing out, it was something I thought I was supposed to want. Teachers and speech therapists and career counselors and even stupid Gwyneth Paltrow movies had convinced me that it was shameful not to want confidence and charisma to display in front of a crowd. As though everything worth doing required sparkling speaking skills and an outgoing personality. I'd exhausted myself, made myself miserable and ashamed, trying to be someone that I wasn't.

People filed out of the room around me as I sat in my folding chair, thinking. CC2 stood up to leave and looked down at me, possibly reading my rapt immobility as disappointment.

“Don't beat yourself up,” he said, kindly. “Just join. You'll be a Competent Communicator in no time.”

The next morning I stood up in the conference room. My fear as I cleared my throat and began to speak wasn't any less real than it had always been; it just felt less important. I didn't need to be great at this. Though I still didn't make eye contact, I also didn't look at the corner of the room—instead, my eyes were fixed on a paper where I'd written down every word I'd say: “The winter magazine placements are finished. We're currently starting on spring, as well as copyediting the new brochures. Thank you.”

When I looked up, everyone's eyes were glazed over; they didn't care. Neither did I, really. As I sat down in my swivel chair, for the first time, I didn't slide immediately into a fantasy of the "Sliding Doors" me seizing the day, turning heads, impressing everyone. I just listened.

Mary Mann

Mary Mann (@mary_e_mann) is a columnist for Bookslut. Her work has appeared in The Hairpin, The Billfold, The Rumpus and New York Magazine.


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