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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.

I must be the slowest person ever to join Toastmasters.

My first meeting was in 1988, when I was a student in University College, Cork. I was terribly shy, somewhat socially inept and going through a very difficult period of adjustment in my life. Why I went along, I am not quite sure. Toastmasters just seemed like something I needed to do.

Having arrived late at Moore’s hotel in the centre of Cork city, I blushed awkwardly while asking the receptionist where the meeting was. I clearly remember her gawking at me and giggling as I self-consciously made my way to the meeting room. The people there were a bit older than me, but from the first day, they made me feel welcome. I joined up soon afterwards and very quickly I set myself the task of presenting an Icebreaker speech – the first speech you will do in a Toastmasters club. It was one of the most unnerving things I have ever done. Talking to the audience was almost like an out-of-body experience. I could not believe that this was my voice and that I was commanding the attention of a roomful of people.

Over the next two years I worked through more speeches, performing different roles in the club. I barely missed one meeting during that time. Toastmasters offered me something that I was not getting from college – a chance to express myself, to follow my own interests and to interact with friendly people from all different ages. It just seemed to suit.

After leaving college, my work found me in Belfast for a few years, then Prague and finally Dublin. Five years had passed since my last Toastmasters meeting, but despite the crazy hours I was doing in work, I had a yearning to go back. I joined the Dublin Toastmasters club in Buswells Hotel and I spent 3 years there, slowly grinding my way through the remaining speeches in the manual. I completed my tenth and final speech just before I relocated back to Cork.

It was now 1997, and marriage, babies, a house and new job opportunities were to take pride of place in my life until 2003, when I joined the local club in Midleton. I’ve been there ever since, and I’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it. Despite having served in all sorts of roles in the club and entering every competition that has been going, I’ve taken the advanced manuals at my own slow pace. I’ve yet to get any Advanced Toastmaster qualification. What I have gained, however, are great friends, a good deal of self-confidence and a relative proficiency in public speaking and presentation skills. I’ve gone on to set up a skeptics club in Blackrock Castle Observatory and to dabble in podcasting in my spare time. I am currently president of two clubs: Midleton and the club at my workplace.

Toastmasters for me has been a great experience. No two meetings are ever quite the same. You never know what is going to pop up that might give you a laugh, a jolt, or a pause for thought. The people who attend the meetings, irrespective of their backgrounds, all have fascinating stories to tell. I have learned to underestimate nobody. I have also learned the secret of good presentation skills: practice. The more you present in front of people, the easier it gets and the more polished you become. Toastmasters offers nothing except an opportunity to improve your abilities in a supportive environment. It’s the best way to learn.

I have only the vaguest of ideas where I go from here. I’m hoping to complete my first advanced stage in the next few months and to complete my presidency with two reasonably strong clubs by the end of the year. Beyond that, I don’t know. Maybe a new and scary challenge will present itself. I still have lots to learn and new challenges to take on. Here’s to the next 23 years.

Find a Toastmasters club in your area. World / UK Ireland

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