A Lesson From Toastmasters


I dropped by my old Toastmasters club last Friday – The Davao Noontime Toastmasters Club.

For those who don’t know what Toastmasters is, no, it is not a drinking club. It is a club devoted to the art of public speaking, communication and leadership. I joined Toastmasters fresh out of college around two decades ago and until today, I am still reaping the benefits of lessons well-learned and earned.

Every Toastmasters program has a portion called Table Topics, headed by a Table Topics Master. The purpose of this activity is to train people in impromptu speaking — the art of speaking with minimal preparation. The Table Topics Master prepares some topics, usually in the form of questions or quotations and then calls on anyone in the audience to react to the given topic. The goal of the speaker is not just to answer the question any which way he wants, but to do so in a structured 2-minute speech complete with an introduction, body and conclusion.

I was called to react to Table Topics last Friday, and the question I got was, “What was the craziest piece of advice that you have received in this club?”

I racked my brains as I walked towards the front to deliver my speech. Then I began by saying, “The craziest piece of advice I got in this club is to come up and talk even if I have no idea what I am going to say. The idea is that you just have to start talking even if you don’t know what your next sentence is going to be, because hopefully, as you’re talking, something will pop into your head.”

At this point, I had no idea how to continue, but then an idea DID pop into my head, so I continued.

“I could have just sat there and passed on speaking, or made excuses about how I was unprepared, or that I have been absent for so long. But I took the challenge and came up to speak even if I haven’t fully formed my ideas yet, and look, I have already managed to say more than 10 words without even knowing how this speech will end.

Learning public speaking is something one does experientially, not just theoretically. I am experiencing speaking now, and the learning is much more powerful than if I had just read a book on public speaking. Because of this, I can be more confident next time I am asked to address a crowd on short notice. I just have to begin speaking and the rest will follow.

That advice was not so crazy after all.”

What I wrote up there is not a word-for-word transcription of my speech but I think it captures the gist of what I said that day. I did not learn public speaking by reading a book, or by attending a seminar — much like I didn’t learn swimming or biking that way. I learned speaking by speaking, and the more I did it, the more I got better at it — of course with proper mentoring, guidance and coaching as well. After all, if you keep practicing the wrong way, then you will end up becoming a master of the wrong way, and that probably isn’t something anyone wants.

I found the same is true of writing. Many people have asked me for advice on how to write better. My advice is simple – write. Even if you have nothing to write about, just begin writing. Sooner or later, you will discover a hidden gem that you can develop into a full-blown story or essay, but you have to jumpstart the process. You have to write the first few words or the first few sentences, or even the first few paragraphs before the magic takes over and you find yourself stumbling over the keyboard because the words are coming out faster than your hand can type them.

When I was offered a chance to write a weekly column just over a year ago, I jumped at it even if I wasn’t sure I could regularly think of something to write every week. But my experience in Table Topics taught me that I just need to get started and things will be easier from then on.

My eldest cousin once said that life is like riding a bicycle. The point is to get moving. Changing directions and improvising is easier when one is in motion than when one is standing still. I found that analogy very true especially in writing. I actually began this article with a very different topic in mind. I wrote three whole paragraphs before deleting all of them and starting over.

Sometimes, writing comes easily and the words just flow. Sometimes, it is difficult and I find myself staring at a white screen and a blinking cursor. But I try not to stare too long or even to just shut down and forget the whole thing. I force myself to get started by typing a few words. Before long, I am typing whole sentences. Pretty soon, ideas are popping into my head and it’s now a matter of managing them, rather than lacking them, of herding them into one coherent stream of thought instead of a jumbled mess.

And then, before I know it, I’ve typed more than 800 words. I compose the concluding sentences and earn a short reprieve. Next week, the process starts all over again.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Send me a message at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me

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