[Toastmasters] My Greatest Fear

Random Observation/Comment #275: Mentoring >> Networking. I find it rewarding being a mentor and extremely inspiring being a mentee.  Networking has become way too artificial of a term anyway. Let’s keep it more personal :).

Heights? Nah…

I stood in front of the podium: sweaty, nervous, and a little nauseous. What do I do with my hands? What am I talking about again? I remember I kept touching my hair (I used to have hair down to my chin and I did this weird swoop).  I shifted left and right, and then started reading directly from my notes. I just wanted it to be over.  I spoke faster and mumbled into an incoherent mess that was supposed to be my speech summarizing my first trip to Japan.  80 people. They were all staring at me with such judgmental eyes. I somehow imagined them laughing and my parents shaking their heads in shame.  I was embarrassed. I was 16 and it was by far the worst day of my life.

Fast forward 4 years later, I had become an engineer at Cooper Union and had spent my summers working in a start-up company.  I spoke in numbers and played dungeons and dragons on weekends.  Well… I still play D&D, but that’s not the point.  I gave a start-up company pitch, and even though I knew the material and I knew how to sell it, I had no execution finesse.  Whenever my mouth opened to explain something, I could have been a great Subject Matter Expert, but I did not know my audience and I did not effectively communicate.

These two experiences shaped my life.  The first one made me introverted. I hid behind books and memorized encyclopedias for fun.  I never wanted to do public speaking again and decided to become an engineer.

The second experience made me realize that becoming an engineer did not mean that you hid from communication skills either.  Being a successful developer is great, but if you’re unable to explain what you did effectively, someone else will steal your credit.  It was because of these revelations that I decided to become a better speaker.

How did I do it?  It sounds like a great build-up for Toastmasters, but it actually wasn’t this public speaking forum that made me more social.  It was actually my 2 years of traveling around the world and talking to girls at bars.  I figured out why it worked though.

1)      I was telling the same story over again introducing myself. Topics were similar and stories were the same, so I could use the same jokes and tell them differently to get the best reaction. As with most practicing, each iteration was better than the one before and it had become a refined 30-second pitch.

2)      I was meeting new people that I really didn’t care about.  This is weird, but because they were strangers, I could say anything and not worry about being judged. This really helped me stay loose and speak more conversationally.

3)      Girls like to talk to guys who are confident and smile a lot. It shows genuine interest and it makes the content of what you’re saying matter much less.  Overall, listening and giving thoughtful feedback really pushed through.

4)      I really learned to cater my speeches to my audience and dynamically shift.  If a girl was not geeky, I avoided talking with big words or bringing up my D&D weekends.  I analyzed the audience’s reaction and adjusted accordingly.

It was not easy reading every book out there about public speaking and it was not easy committing times to make the 2nd and 3rd speeches, but I think it paid off. I started toastmasters 2 years ago, and I am happy to say that this group has made me a better speaker, more confident, and overall a better leader.

I always thought that public speaking was a natural thing that could not be taught, but really it’s just a skill. You can work on a skill and – even though you won’t be the best public speaker in the world – you’ll be far better than you are today.  So practice and get out of your comfort zone.  One day, your greatest fear can be your greatest asset.

~See Lemons Break from the Shell