Saturday, February 28, 2015

Voluntary Victory

A Toastmaster and a lawyer die and go up to the heavenly gates. Saint Peter tells the Toastmaster to wait and lets the lawyer in first. As the gates close, he sees the lawyer greeted with fanfare, music and cheers. A choir of angels descends from above and sings for the lawyer.

As the last anger floats away, Saint Peter finally grants entrance to the Toastmaster.  There is no music, no choir. Confused, the Toastmaster looks to Saint peter for an explanation. 

"Oh, we get Toastmasters volunteering here all the time. This was our first lawyer"

We all come to Toastmasters for different reasons., but basically, it's about that age-old fear of speaking in public.  Once we have been here for a while and our butterflies are flying in formation, our vision shifts and our perspectives tend to change. Some people are quite clear on it - they have come to Toastmasters to learn a skill.  Once they have earned their CC, they leave - job done.  But for others it becomes a way of life; it is who we are.  And for those of us who class ourselves in this group, it becomes the time to volunteer to give back.

Every year - in fact, twice every year , at Club, Area, division and District levels, Speech Contests are held for the purpose of determining who the best speakers are in the Humorous, Impromptu, Evaluation and International categories.  And every year those officers who are responsible for the running of these contests ask for volunteers to assist with the various roles, be they Contest Chairman, judges, timekeepers or tally counters. The strange  thing is that, although it is often the same people who volunteer, those roles are always filled.

The same thing happens annually when a succession plan has to be put in place for the new executive committee.  People today generally complain of being over-extended, or too busy, but somehow a new executive is always found.  Sometimes it is by coercion, usually by reminding them that when they signed up, their Toastmasters pledge said something about serving when they are called upon, but mostly, after having given it some thought, the incumbents do volunteer.

Speechcraft and Youth Leadership Courses are a way for clubs to raise funds, but they rely on the services of volunteers, not only to run the courses, but also to assist those folk by doing educational speeches or by evaluating the member speeches.  If it were not for this assistance, these courses would not happen.

Thinking about volunteering led me to do some research - remember Google only knows? Well, it seems that there are a number of reasons why people volunteer.  Here are just a few of them:

  • You will be giving something back - I think all of us in Toastmasters know what a valuable 'thing' it is that we have gained, so we can relate to the idea of 'paying it forward'
  • You use your skills to benefit others - These two items seem to tie in together.  I have often heard it said that Toastmasters is the world's best kept secret, but I know that if you have gained something that makes life easier and better for you, you will want others to benefit from it too.
  • You experience personal growth - So often, in passing on a skill or helping others, we find ourselves challenged . The result? Personal growth.  Just last year a group of us ran workshops  and assisted as evaluators at the Collegiate All-Girls' Festival.  I know that we went there as the 'experts', but I am sure I speak for all of us who were involved when I say that we learned as much from those  girls as they did from us.
  • You see that you can make a difference - I don't think anyone volunteers initially with this in mind. However, it is often a happy by-product of what one does.
  • Finally, it's actually good for you! Studies have shown that:
    • It reduces stress - focusing on others rather than on yourself reduces tension-producing patterns
    • It makes you healthier - Positive emotions, like optimism, joy and having a sense of being in control of one's fate, strengthen the immune system
Those of you who run the Youth Leadership and Speechcraft Courses, and those who assist them, know that while there is no financial gain for us personally, we have all seen lives changed - theirs and ours - because we volunteered to help.

I want to tell you about a picture I came across on Facebook. In it was a group of children, laughing and smiling.  I recognised their faces. They were children I had taught - now more than fifteen years ago. I commented on how quickly the years had passed and before long so many of them responded to me - telling me what they were doing now and how much they had appreciated doing the Toastmasters Youth Leadership course - and what a difference it had made in their lives.

One girl in particular had touched my heart even then. L and her three sisters were raised by a single mom who worked as a domestic. There was very little money, but L was a single-minded girl. She was determined not to be a victim of her circumstances. Doing the Toastmasters course was just the start for her.   She had a knack for verbal communication and she knew it. Her matric results were good; she won a bursary to NMMU where she studied law and today she is a legal consultant with one of the top investment companies in the country. Being who she was, she would probably have got there by herself, but when she commented to me and thanked me for my input in her life, I was really touched.  I felt that I have really achieved something - a victory.

So, if your Toastmasters experience is becoming stale; if you are chasing your own speaking or leadership goals, but it doesn't feel as if it is enough, why not raise your hand the next time someone asks for help with a club project, a Speechcraft or Youth Leadership course? It might make all the difference!

Until next time

Ricky Woods

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Here we go again!

 2014 seems like a blurry memory.

 My good intentions of keeping the blog going sadly went the way of all good intentions when Alison relocated and I had to take over the presidency of the club.  However, the timing seems right.  The last blog was almost exactly a year ago. So here goes.

When I first worked my way through the Competent Communicator manual – then called the Competent Toastmaster manual, I had an experience that has stayed with me for a long time. I had prepared a speech called Walk for your Life and although I can’t remember what level it was for, I found it again the other day and I must say, I was quite impressed with how erudite I sounded!

Thinking back on it now, that was probably my first mistake – I was trying too hard. Too many phrases that had to be ‘just so’; too many quotations by people I didn't really know about.  I did what most of us do when I was preparing: I tried to learn it off by heart.

The time for presentation came and I was doing so well.  Then I hit a blank and I started stumbling.  I apologised and stuttered and then had to go back to my notes.  Although I finished well, I ended off feeling as though I had failed.

To this day I can recall the advice given to me by Cheron Joubert – “Nobody knows what you have written; only you do.  If you find yourself faltering, try to recover, but don’t apologize.  Just move on”

It was good advice, but that’s all very well.  It got me to thinking about the time we spend researching and preparing our speeches and whether there isn't an easier way.  Please don’t get me wrong. I believe that there are times when we want to research a new subject or uncover something we don’t already know about a specific area of interest.  There are also times when rehearsing a particular turn of phrase or catchy statement is essential to getting our message across.

 But most of the time we talk about topics that are close to our hearts, subjects that we do not need to research.  It’s my contention that if this is the case, we probably could get away with an introduction; an outline of our material and a conclusion. It’s always a good idea to memorise your introduction and your conclusion, so that you grab your audience’s attention and leave them with something to think about.  The rest will be pretty much ‘doing what comes naturally ‘

Let me give you an example of how you could structure such a speech.

Your opening
As parents we always cautioned our boys about ‘stranger danger’ - you know:
  • ·        Never speak to strangers
  • ·        Never get into a car of someone you don’t know

But I want to tell you about an incident when I was so grateful for the assistance of a stranger to my son.

Setting up the scene
Our older son, Gareth, who was then six, used to go to art classes near Fort Frederick in Central every Friday afternoon. As I was sick, I had asked a friend to drop him off. She waited until she saw him enter the yard and then drove off. None of us knew that the classes had been cancelled owing to renovations.

Body of the speech
Gareth turned around only to see her car disappearing around the corner.  He really didn't know the area, although he knew that his dad’s office and the church were somewhere in Central.  This was before the time of cell phones, so he had no way of reaching us.  He started to cry. Just then an old man stopped in a car, saw the little boy in his Grey school uniform and asked what the problem was.

Gareth was so conflicted.  Remembering our words of caution about strangers, he didn't want to talk to the man, let alone get into his car.  Yet, he was lost and didn't know where to turn.  Fortunately, he remembered which church his dad worked at and the man drove him there and restored him to his father.

Conclusion – it would be good to tie this back to your opening
I’m not saying one must throw caution to the winds. When it comes to strangers, always trust your instincts and it is probably better to err on the side of caution, but one should also be open to the kindness and compassion that does exist in strangers.

Nothing has been written out. You have an introduction. Then you relate the body of your speech, which is familiar to you. Finally, you link back to the start with your conclusion.

Practising is still important.  It is probably going to sound slightly different each time you do it, but that isn't important.  What is important is timing yourself.  This will allow you to do some on the spot editing.

The beauty of not memorising a speech parrot fashion is that you will not lose your place; so you won’t be upset or disturbed if it doesn't sound exactly as you had planned it. Just focus on your main points and tie it all together at the end.

If it sounds scary not to have a memorised speech, just remember that Toastmasters is about taking risks in a supportive club environment.

Next time, don’t do it off by heart.

Outline. Focus on your content; practise your delivery; be aware of your time – and WOW your audience.

Have you tried to do it like this? Did it work?  What works for you?  Please share your experiences with us so that we can learn from you.

Until next time
Ricky Woods