I’ve had a lot of fun the last week or so with some of the dialogues I’ve had on this blog, via email and the various social networks. I’ve also been enlightened, shocked and learned a few things. So to wrap up this topic so I can move on to the finer points of other areas of communication and personal development, I want to provide you with my final thoughts on Toastmasters along with a brief history of my involvement with this great organization.
Why I joined:
In the summer of 2002, I took the Dale Carnegie Course based on the recommendation of Harvey Mackay. I took the course because I had recently struggled with a presentation at work due to the fact that it was the first time in four years that I did a presentation. I spent most of 1997 & 1998 giving several presentations a week as part of my job so I was fine back then. But for some reason, I really struggled this time.
After Dale Carnegie ended, I swore I would not allow myself to have to conquer my fear of public speaking for a third time. I also hated my job and wanted to leave – I figured joining a local club would help me meet people that help me find a job closer to home (I had recently moved and lived about 40 miles from where I worked and grew up). I convinced a friend from my Dale Carnegie class to meet me at a local Toastmasters meeting a few weeks after Dale Carnegie ended.
My first year:
Although I had spent months reading about Toastmasters through the official web site and the sites for some local clubs, it was lot different than I expected. I attended every meeting except for one that year – and I only missed it because I was 3000 miles away.
I started the year as a new member and ended it as Club President. Half of that year was spent as V.P. of Education. I gave that club my all and got ten times what I gave in return – many of those people I met are still good friends today even though some of us have moved on to new challenges and out of the area.
The biggest lesson I learned during that first year was that Toastmasters was more than just public speaking. The Toastmaster role itself required a lot of organization and negotiation to get roles filled before the meeting began. You also learned how to be flexible and deal with change – skills that are helpful in most management positions. As an evaluator, you had to learn to give feedback in manner that helped people to improve themselves without discouraging them – a trait far too many folks in management need to improve.
But being an officer really opened my eyes. My club had two women that produced the club’s monthly newsletter and they did a fantastic job. They also improved their writing and journalist skills (the newsletter had member interviews, bios, event listings, etc…) while doing this.
Year Two – A President’s Point of View:
In May of 2003, I was elected Club President – the first time I was ever voted anything in my life. I enjoyed that year as I worked with a great group of officers and we hit all ten of the club’s goals. The year had its challenges along with its successes, but they were minor and caused no permanent damage. I had to deal with a few conflicts between members (another key management skill) and make some tough decisions but I wouldn’t change anything we did.
That year I again only missed one meeting due to travel, and got to meet some extraordinary people. My club joined our local Chamber of Commerce -“ the most controversial action our leadership team took – and I attended many events which helped me improve my networking skills. I’m still friends with some of the people I met during that time and again, learned useful skills in addition to public speaking.
Networking was critical during that time for me because I started my term unemployed but a few months in, got a job thanks to help from a friend in Toastmasters. Seven months later, I found myself unemployed again and thought I’d end my term as President jobless, however I landed another job just a few weeks before handing over the gavel (again through my connection with Toastmasters). But the unemployment periods helped me grow in ways that I didn’t realize at the time. I visited other clubs, attended a National Speakers Association meeting, had my first professional engagement and unconsciously laid the foundation for a lot of the things I do today.
Year Three – The First Breakup:
Right before my term as President ended, I agreed to serve as Area Governor. I was a Toastmasters fanatic and had aspirations to move up to district level positions. I enjoyed my new role within Toastmasters even though one of my clubs shut down within the first few months -they had struggled for a while. But I had honestly bitten off more than I could chew.
In addition to the Area Governor role, I was also an Ambassador for the Chamber of Commerce which required me attend monthly meetings in addition to the member events plus make between ten and fifteen calls to new and renewing members each month. I had also started a new job and wanted to really succeed there after getting laid off from my previous two positions. I found myself constantly running around trying to keep up with everything.
On top of that, I had some huge changes and challenges in my personal life. I gave up my role as an ambassador within the chamber of commerce and missed about 70% of the Toastmasters meetings. But on a more positive note, my two most treasured moments of my career as a Toastmaster happened during that year.
The first highlight was when I got to present our Presidential Distinguished Ribbon to the club. That small piece of felt was a true symbol of what an excellent leadership team combined with active and energetic members can do. It was a true team effort from everyone within the club and I had never been more proud to be part of a group in my life.
The second highlight happened on a night where I almost didn’t attend due to challenges in my personal life -I had received news that at the time seemed devastating yet eventually turned out to be fine. But I made it to that meeting where I received an award for my service the prior year and got “roasted” by the club. They picked on me for everything, but we all had fun. As I accepted my trophy (which still sits high up on my desk so I can see it) I explained how my day had gone prior to the meeting and thanked everyone profusely for cheering me up. After a lot of hugs and handshakes, I learned how people can easily become addicted to this organization – and it wasn’t the last time I had a bad day and my semi-monthly Toastmasters meeting cheered me up.
My Second Run:
After taking a year and half off to deal with the changes in my personal life, I rejoined Toastmasters in the summer of 2006. I had a few speaking engagements lined up and I wanted to be in tip top speaking shape for them, so I used Toastmasters as a place to practice them. I had already earned my first advanced award so I was working from manuals that had longer speeches. Although fitting my talks into manual speeches was a challenge, I got excellent feedback and it helped me improve.
I again got to meet some great people – a “new generation” of club members that educated and inspired me. I also joined an advanced club where I met some people that were extremely helpful and generous. With my main club, I worked with the leadership team to create a monthly training session to fill help people beyond the regular club meetings. This idea didn’t take off the way I hoped it would, but we had fun.
But like all good things, my active involvement in Toastmasters had to come to an end. In October of 2007, I made the decision to bid farewell to Toastmasters due to scheduling conflicts. When I’m part of any group, I like to be involved and help people. But I found it to be too tough to juggle club meetings along with the classes I offered and my other speaking engagements.
I still attend several meetings a year, but only as a guest. It took some getting used to, as I like to be involved. And yes, every time I leave a Toastmasters event, I spend the entire drive home flirting with the idea of rejoining. But then reality hits and I realize that I’ve got to move on to continue to grow. Toastmasters is comfort zone for me and while I love being part of it, I’ve opened a new chapter in my life and my focus needs to be there. But that doesn’t mean that I have to stay clear away from it.
A few weeks back I presented at the District 31 Spring Conference and had a blast. I know the International Convention is local to me this year but I don’t think I’ll be able to make it due to scheduling conflicts. I still keep in contact with many of the active members of my former club and we all still exchange ideas and look to each other for advice. To me, it’s the next best thing to actually being involved.
I know that there are some unpopular changes that the International board is implementing, but I still see the future for the organization to be mainly bright. Yes, there are still those overzealous fanatics that eat, sleep and breathe Toastmasters as well as the people that think they know everything about speaking yet have never spoken outside of Toastmasters. But there are also some fantastic people out there that I’ve met via the various social networks with whom I share the common bond of Toastmasters.
Toastmasters is much more than speaking. It’s friends and mentors that are there when you need them. It’s networking and management – skills that are critical for success in most careers. It’s opportunity and inspiration. All in all, it was a great experience that I’m honored to have been a part of.