Archives for category: Toastmasters

Years ago, I listened to a great story in a public speaking club I attended. The storyteller, who I will call Steve, was very talented.

The story went like this: He had a best friend Tom; they went way back to when they were school kids. Unfortunately, Tom was dying of cancer. Tom’s great wish was to climb Carrauntoohil: Ireland’s highest mountain. So, they made a plan, and a couple of weeks later, without telling anybody, they both set out on a mountain trek, walking the long road, negotiating the rivers and high rock faces. It wasn’t easy for Tom, but he was determined to see it all the way through. Eventually, they reached the top and they both looked out over Ireland one last time. Tom died three months later, but it was a moment that, literally and metaphorically, marked a high point in Steve’s life.

In the pub that night, Steve made a confession. He had invented the story out of whole cloth. Tom, this best friend from school, never existed. The story was a complete and utter fabrication.

I felt cheated, but Steve’s story taught me something valuable: that storytelling is like a superpower – the superpower of persuasion. But, like any superpower, we can use it for good, or for evil.

The ability to tell good stories is the mark of a great communicator. From our earliest days, we are told to grab the audience, to have a beginning, a middle and an end; to build up the tension and the drama, to conclude with aplomb and to finish the story with no unanswered questions. Our goal is to place our listeners in the palm of our hands, so that not only will they believe what we tell them, they might act on it also.

And therein lies the problem. To persuade, our stories don’t have to be true.

One of the problems is that we can choose our stories to frame things in very self-serving ways. Take smoking for instance. Reams of scientific evidence tell us that smoking is very dangerous to us, and if you were a health professional or literate in statistics you might be shocked by what these studies tell you. But all this evidence has been undermined by simple stories, such as great aunt Mary that lived to 104 on 3 packs a day. Stories like this have persuaded millions of people that cigarettes were not as harmful as doctors made out. And millions of people tragically suffered the consequences.

To tell a good story, you need to edit. You can’t say everything, so you bring it down to a few salient points. But editing, by definition, leaves out lots of stuff, and what gets cut might be really important. If I told you the story of a self-made man who rose to the very top of his profession through grit and hard work, you might be impressed, but if the story omits the fact that he originally came from great wealth and used threats and shady dealing to get to where he was, it changes the narrative quite a bit. What do storytellers cut out in the telling of their tale? That’s always a good question to ask.

And don’t forget the power of exaggeration – the adjectives we use – the choice of words. All these things matter. The evil villain is truly awful and the worthy hero can do no wrong. Really? Would the presumptive villain agree to that portrayal? Maybe not, and maybe they have a perspective that’s worth listening to.

And then, the story might just be a bunch of lies – half-truths and conspiracies designed to appeal to fear or self-interest. You are the good person. All these people around you are criminals who want all your stuff for themselves. Only I can protect you. These are the narratives of fraudsters and cult-leaders, and the problem is, they work. We only have to look around us today to find examples of people persuaded into believing great untruths that could damage their health and destroy their lives.

To persuade, stores don’t have to be true. They just have to be convincing.

So where does that leave us?

As members of an audience, as people receptive a good story, we must be aware of the power and misuses of storytelling. We’ve got to look critically on what we are told. Where is the evidence? What is being left out? Is the narrator using excessively emotive language to manipulate us? When hearing stories that might affect what we are to believe, we can’t be passive – we must engage, we must question.

As story creators, we have an obligation not to deliberately deceive. We might have strong opinions on a subject but we owe it to our audience to ensure we are providing factual information, basing our views on proper evidence, and acting with humility if there are things we don’t know. This is not easy, but it is something that we must do as best we can.

Our goal should be to leave our audience educated, to open their minds and not close them. We should aspire to make them think and ask questions. We should make it our mission to leave our audience smarter and not dumber, because persuasion without support is insulting and potentially deceitful.

Storyteller Steve taught me a valuable lesson those many years ago – that good stories don’t have to be based on truth, and that a clever manipulator will use stories to deceive us and divide us. We don’t need to be like Steve. We can do better. We can still climb our mountains and reach for the lofty heights of great storytelling, but let’s not take shortcuts getting there.

I’ve been in Toastmasters for over 20 years and the greatest conclusion I have come to is that it is all about practice. The more you have the opportunity to speak in front of others, the easier it becomes.

The key problem is nerves. Why is it that we can speak easily and confidently, using natural body movements, facial expressions and vocal variety in front of friends and family, but when we are put in front of a large group of strangers, all that ease and confidence disappears? Nerves, adrenalin – whatever you want to call it – kicks in and makes us very uncomfortable. It’s a protective response, designed to make you feel you should run for the hills. The other side of the coin, however, is that it make you feel alive and in the moment. If you can use nerves to your advantage, they can actually enhance your speaking delivery.

Nerves are not an intellectual problem. You can’t “switch them off’, or find the answer to nerves in a book, or by think them into non-existence. The “imagine the audience as all naked” thing never worked for me. Breathing techniques, relaxation, etc. all help, but I have found that the best way to overcome nerves is to speak in public as often as you can. You will never lose nerves – and neither should you want to – but with time it just gets more manageable.

I have a bit of a bug-bear about Powerpoint presentations, in that much of the time they are used as a crutch for the presenter, and not as an aid to understanding for the audience. Let me make this plain: I hate bullet points. I hate complex diagrams. I hate word laden slides. I hate slides with no apparent purpose. Powerpoint presentations should, if at all possible, be full of vivid imagery, with minimal use of text. The audience came to hear you and the focus should therefore be kept on you, and what you have to say.

The structure should also be simple. The best speeches use a simple narrative style: the speaker tells a story. They might start in the past, move into the present and talk about the future. Alternatively, they might stay in the past, and what was learned from the story. Or they might have a purpose, backed up by a few small stories to demonstrate why you think the way you do. Either way they make use of narrative: moving, where possible, through time in order to reach a conclusion. Make use of storytelling. It’s the gift we were given by our distant ancestors to retain knowledge and audiences appear to be particularly well disposed to it.

As for making mistakes – I’m all for it. When you have an interesting story to tell, you shouldn’t worry too much about slip-ups. The audience will ignore them. The audience is extremely forgiving if you are saying something of value to them. Your missteps, forgotten lines, technical hitches, momentary amnesia, ems, ums and ahs, will be quickly forgotten.

The bottom line: do it. Do it again. Then, do it again. It’s all about practice.

Here’s my vision of hell.

I’m sitting through a presentation with 50 slides in it. Actually, make it 80 slides. I’m pinching myself to stay awake. It ticks all the boxes. Lots of bullet points? Tick. Sub-bullet points? Tick. Font size 12? Tick. No discernable pattern or storyline? Tick. Monotone delivery? Tick. Clip Art? Tick. Distracting animation? Tick. No possibility for audience interaction? Tick. Presenter faced back to the audience like some Tridentine priest? Tick. I apologise if you feel sick now.

It should be legislated against. Motivational speaker Jay H. Lehr has an answer: “Failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning”. (He has many other things to say about presentations here)

There is no law that says that presentations must be boring, but somehow many of us have been sucked into this morass of bad PowerPoint. I am as guilty as anyone, having inflicted the most awful presentation on college students in Dublin some years back. Complex consultancy diagrams, impenetrable business jargon, rambling storyline, the lot. Some of the students fell asleep in front of me. It was terrible. I still shudder to think about it.

I learned from the experience. I had no choice. I now use a fairly simple technique that seems to work, so here goes..

First of all, I start by taking everything away. I delete everything from the page – titles, bullet points, page numbers, everything. When I am left with a completely blank page, I think about what I want to say and then I see if I can summarise it in as few words as possible.

Then, I think about a simple picture or a photo (not clip art, please, please not clip art) that conveys this message. And that’s pretty much the essence of it – a picture and a few words. There are some great shareable pictures available on the Internet via photo sharing sites.

I find that if I give the audience strong visual cues that reinforce my message, then it helps to make the presentations more interesting and memorable. It really is that simple.

The thing about presentations is that they are not meant to be used as a crutch. They are not meant to help the presenter remember his lines. Instead, they are meant to enhance and clarify the messages that the speaker wants to convey. They can also help add variety and leave the audience with an image they are unlikely to forget quickly. Presentation slides are there for the benefit of the people you are speaking to, not you.

That’s the basic principle. You can elaborate from there as much as you want. You can use video, graphics, appropriate animation, or physical props to emphasise your points. You can even turn off the presentation at times during your talk to allow the audience interact with you alone. There’s no law that says that you must be a slave to slideware.

You are limited only by your imagination by what you can do. Just don’t make it boring. Some of the audience members might be packing stones.

I’ve just posted this article to some local newspapers as part of my job as PRO for our local Toastmasters club, but I thought I would post it here also, as it’s a subject that interests me greatly. Please let me know what you think. Would you have anything to add?

One of the most important life skills is the ability to start and hold a conversation with new people. Conversation is an art that requires tact, understanding and self-knowledge.

When starting out on a conversation with strangers it usually works to think small. Small-talk on topics such as the weather, the immediate surroundings, a recent news or sporting event or a pleasant comment about what the other person is wearing can be a very effective way of beginning a dialogue between two people. Small talk is particularly good for two reasons – it will help you both start from a common, neutral position and it will also give you an indication if the other person is interested in a conversation at all. Sometimes, for whatever reason, people might not want to talk and that’s OK. A flat response to an innocuous topic is signal enough to end the conversation and move on.

Things that get most people talking are topics to do with themselves. You can use the FORE technique – Family, Occupation, Recreation and Education. How are the kids doing? What project are you working on? What sports are you interested in? Where did you go to school? All these questions may open doors to the other person’s life, making it easy for them to talk with ease.

A useful approach in conversations is to use open ended questions. Questions starting with “Did”, “Are”, “Can” or “Is” are fine in a court of law, but might not move the conversation forward as they may only elicit “yes” and “no” responses. Instead, you should ask open questions that require the other person to elaborate. “What”, “How”, “When” and “Why” type questions are often much more appropriate if you want to get a conversation moving.

When conversing with strangers it is good practice to keep the conversation positive and to avoid negativity as much as possible. Criticism or sarcasm, whether direct or implied, can have an immediate effect of putting others on the defensive and closing them down. If your aim is to get the other person talking, but you disagree with what they have just said, you are often better off staying quiet or perhaps adding a different perspective, than flat out contradicting them.

Finally and most importantly, you need to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Repeating, paraphrasing, building on what the other person has said or adding an anecdote or a bit of humour helps to make people feel at ease and keep the conversation flowing.

You might note from this article that the art of a good conversationalist is to focus on the interests, opinions and experiences of the other person, not you. People will often leave with a good impression of you when they feel they have been truly listened to and not subjected to a monologue about your thoughts and attitudes. Economy can sometimes be the key to a successful conversation.

The following is a story that I wrote for my club’s Tall Tales Competition.



Bobby went over to the grandfather clock.

He looked up at it. It seemed to climb into the distance. He had many years to go before he would be able to look straight into the strange dial with all its pointers and numbers.


The clock struck five o’clock. He giggled with glee and jumped for joy. He loved this tune, as it reverberated around the house.


No BONG ever came.

He waited.

Just silence.

Everything around him had gone completely, utterly, quiet.

Bobby shuffled into the kitchen. Not a sound. No hum from the fridge. No flies buzzing around the ceiling light. He was about to leave when suddenly he noticed the kitchen sink.

A drop of water had left the tap, but instead of splattering against the sink, there it was, suspended in mid air. A tiny orb, shining in the sunlight. Bobby stood there a while. Fascinated. Taking it in from all angles. Eventually he reached out and allowed it to splash gently against his fingers. A tiny droplet ran from his hand, landing quietly against the bottom of the sink.

He jumped up to look out the kitchen window.

He could see trees outside. They were motionless. Then he saw the bird.

Bobby yelped with glee and rushed outside. There it was, wings outstretched, feet off the ground. It had just taken off. It was absolutely rigid. Levitating, as if by magic, just centimetres above the ground. He gazed into the small bird’s eye. He admired the beautiful feathers – a multicoloured hologram, green, blue, red.

He reached out and touched one tail feather. FLAP FLAP FLAP FLAP it suddenly came to life and lifted itself into the sky, shrieking all the while. Bobby never let it out of his sight until it was a small dot against the blue background.

Silence returned. Not a sound, not a movement.


Something else had been looking at the bird. Just a short distance away, Bobby noticed his cat. Its eyes were focused, its back was coiled, its legs were bent. It was about to pounce on a creature that was not there any more. But this cat remained utterly inert. It looked like an animal in that Museum that mum and dad brought him to last year. Very gently he set his hand down on the animals back. MIAAAOOW! The cat took fright and launched itself at the nearest tree – disappearing into the branches.

Bobby was confused and delighted at the same time. He walked out into the front garden.

There he saw a wonderful thing! The sprinkler! Everywhere he looked, thousands of little frozen droplets filled the air. It was a magnificent crystal display. A glittering chandelier. He looked on the scene in awe. As he gazed, his foot stepped on the hosepipe. SSS SSS SSS SSS! He yelped with glee! The sprinkler suddenly burst into life and Bobby was splattered with myriads of tiny balls of moving water.

Running away he glanced over the front gate. On the road there was a car. A car he knew well. He launched himself over the gate and ran towards it. Inside the car was his father. But his father looked different. He had a vacant expression on his face, not the usual big wide smile that greeted him every time they came in contact. And he too was rigid, like a wax dummy. The car was not moving and made no noise.

Bobby tried to get his dad’s attention. He ran to the front of the car, gesticulating and waving.

No response.

Bobby was getting frustrated. Then an idea formed in his mind.

What if he touched the car?

Maybe, then, that would move too.

With one small hand, he reached out to touch the front bumper of the car.


A single sound. From inside the house. Just barely noticeable above the sound of the sprinkler.

The Grandfather Clock.

Bobby looked at his dad. He looked back towards the house.

He made a decision.

He ran back into the house, towards the clock. His dad would have to wait a little bit longer.

Last night, I attended the Division A finals of the Toastmasters International Speech and Evaluation Competition (quite a mouthful – sorry!). I was the winner from our local area evaluation contest. (This means that I had to evaluate another speech – to find the strong points and areas of recommendation, then deliver a mini-speech on this to the audience. Preparation time: 5 minutes. Speech duration: about 3 minutes).

The speaker this time was a very humorous one – actually he was as close to a stand-up comedian as I ever have heard in Toastmasters. A big goofy smile on his face, impeccable timing and great use of words. Short, three or four word phrases that had the audience on the floor with laughter. The subject of his speech was how he did a marriage proposal for a bachelor farmer up the country. Quite a hoot, let me tell you.

It was actually quite a difficult speech to evaluate. “How to improve that?” I kept asking myself. Anyway, I managed some (rather weak) things to say, but the way I delivered my message was good, even if I say so myself. I felt quite calm and confident up there in front of the audience. It was a lot different to my previous evaluation contest.

I won a very nice glass trophy for my efforts and I’m chuffed. Not having been very sporty in my youth, this is something rather novel for me.

The next step would have been a trip to Portsmouth to attend the Division Finals (UK and Ireland Finals) – which is a big honour. Unfortunately  I’m unable to go, as my sister is getting married in Toronto on the same day.

I got a few strange glances from people when I told them I couldn’t go.  To be honest, I never expected that I would win. This was the first time I had done so well and the experience of getting so far and speaking in front of such a large group meant more to me than trying to win the competition outright. It was a decision I thought I would never have to make.

Anyway, there’s always next year. I know I can do it now, so perhaps the chance will come again. Next time I’ll make sure my calendar is cleared, though!

Hands up who isn’t familiar with these problems! Real nuggets of wisdom here…

Life After Death by PowerPoint

Our Toastmasters club ran a poetry and prose evening tonight and for the first time ever, I recited some of my poems in public. I got a particularly good reception to my poem He lies there still. We had about 12 contributors tonight. A few guests spoke, including two visitors who have never been to a Toastmasters meeting before. One guest even told us that she wanted to join the club through the medium of poetry!

For me, the comment of the night was “I couldn’t write poetry. Poetry is far too profound. Nobody should ever underestimate the depths of my shallowness”.

The club has been thriving this year. We have signed up our 7th new member (more than the previous 3 years combined) and all our meetings have been varied and interesting. We made a key decision last year to move to a new venue. We moved from the formal surroundings of the local hotel to the more intimate setting of a pub and this has played a part in making the club more accessible to ordinary people.

I’m really enjoying it this year. Compared to this time last year, it’s like a different world.

I gave a speech last night on the subject of my twins. It was part of a Toastmasters humorous speech competition, and I came second (of two speakers). I had put in some effort into getting the speech ready, so coming second was a bit of a slap in the face. Mind you, I don’t blame the guy who won, and neither do I blame the judges. It’s the realisation that I had a false view of my own abilities that grates a little bit. While the subject I chose was both interesting, relevant and quite funny, my delivery didn’t get too many laughs.

After the meeting I pretty much resolved not to enter a humorous speech competition again, only to find that my colleague with the winning speech can’t make the next round, and so I will have to give the same speech again at another, bigger, meeting. Oh the joys….

I have started to read Robert Harris’s “Imperium”. It concerns the life of Cicero, the great Roman orator who lived during the “interesting times” at the end of the Roman Republic. A memorable quote, allegedly from his teacher, was that only three things counted in public speaking: delivery, delivery and delivery. This is quite a challenging observation, because delivery is by far the toughest part of public speaking. It requires practice, control of nerves, attention to detail and control of hand and body movements.

I think I learned a lesson last night. I don’t want to let myself down in the next speech, so I probably need to practice some more and do what I can to make the funny bits funnier. Easier said than done, I think.

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