Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Little Piece of Toast(masters)

Last night, I went with a friend (Don't feed the Pixies, to be exact) to our local branch of Toastmasters. It was to be his debut as a main speaker there and I was going along for two reasons: to lend him a bit of moral support and to see for myself what exactly it was that he had been enthusing about these last several weeks.

I've usually felt awkward when joining an established group for the first time: you don't know the etiquette, or what's coming next or what's expected of you as a guest, but the toastmasters had it all worked out. Every part of the evening was explained and guests were given the choice of whether to join in the fun or not. Now, being a gobby git who enjoys the sound of her own voice and who relishes a bit of a mental agility challenge from time to time, I decided it would be much more fun to throw myself in than to hang about on the sidelines.

The evening started off, as DFTP has said, with a warm-up which involved singing something about Summer. I'm ashamed to say I stole DFTP's thunder a bit by singing There Ain't No Cure for the summertime Blues. It wasn't intentional - it was all I could think of, given that all the other obvious songs (Summer Holiday, Summertime, etc) had already been taken by others before us. He controlled his annoyance masterfully, however, and didn't stab me to death with his voting pen (Oh, yes, peeps, there's voting!).

After the warm-up came the main speakers for the evening. Now, DFTP has already described at length his contribution, which was truly excellent given that it was his maiden speech, so I won't repeat it all here. There were two other speakers who were further along in their training and their speeches were both entertaining and informative.

Before we knew it, it was recess and a chance to mingle with some very interesting and engaging people. The one thing I noticed about the people at Toastmasters was that without exception they were friendly, voluble (no surprise there, given the kind of activity being undertaken by the group) and interested in getting to know their guests. This was so refreshing after all the awkward starts I've had in groups that I've joined over the years. OK, so the whole group is devoted to cultivating their personal presentation skills and it behoves them to be as warm and engaging as possible. Having said this, though, I did not get any hint of false, over-effusive friendliness from any of them. This I like.

After the break it was Table Topics. This is a regular thing where the Table Topics Master (TTM) chooses people at random to speak for two minutes on whatever the subject is for the evening. Our TTM this week must have had a slightly sadistic streak though because rather than give out a topic, he gave each speaker a real but extremely obscure English word and they had to come up with as original a definition as possible for it and expatiate upon that definition for two whole minutes.

Now, you wouldn't think 120 seconds would be that hard to fill now would you? Well the first few speakers managed a good showing with the likes of yardang and purlicue. Then suddenly, my name was called and my brain shut down. I hoped that, in the 10 or so seconds it took for me to get to the front, I could come up with a breathtakingly witty definition, but nope, the old grey matter stayed maddeningly silent.

I'm facing the crowd now and stammering my way into the standard opening "Mr Toastmaster, Master Table Topics Master..." Anything yet, brain? Nope. Damn! OK. Look at the word (infundibleform or something), point at it, try to sound erudite about the etymological roots (woo, get you!) of the various parts of it. Flammel! Prevaricate! Phillibuster!

Eventually, after one minute and ten seconds of the most incoherent and rambling nonsense, I gave in and wrapped it up. The audience was, as they had been to everyone who had spoken, warm in their encouragement and applause.

That's another thing I like about this group, they are all so positive and constructive in their feedback. Everyone, but EVERYONE is evaluated at Toastmasters (even the evaluators!) and the audience gets to vote on their favourite speaker in various categories (First speaker, Second speaker, Best Evaluator, etc).

Amazingly, I was voted Best Table Topics speaker for the night. Earlier you will remember I mentioned that I am a gobby git who likes the sound of her own voice.

At Toastmasters, this is not necessarily a character flaw. If you have a branch near you, go along and check it out: it's as much fun as you can have with your clothes on!


  1. It occurred to me the next morning that no one sang The Kinks "Lazy Sunny Afternoon" - this was surely something of a crime.

    They were all very impressed by "etymological" and i thought your reasoned analysis was fun.

    Additionally - as you know i switch between this and Art group and have always found the Toastmasters a lot friendlier (there are people at art that i have still yet to speak to - the same cannot be said of Toastmasters after half the time)

    Good fun and glad you enjoyed :)

  2. here comes the sun?... the sun ain't gonna shine anymore... seasons in the sun?.... hhhmmmm...
    Sounds like a good mind taxing thingy old toastmasters! I've got a bit of a phobia about joining groups, I've only ever had bad experiances (getting liked by the token wierdo, getting snubbed by the token 'cool' sector, trying my best but failing badly...that sort of thing!).. lol

  3. I've never actually come across this Toastmasters thingy but I imagine it would be something I'd quite enjoy.

    Way back in the 1960s I joined a Dale Carnegie course in London which was all about 'making friends and influencing people'. It was good fun and included making short, (60 seconds), speeches on various topics. A minute can be a long time sometimes!

    When I first came to Mellerstain House I enjoyed taking small groups of about 20-30 visitors around the house.

    Used to introduce them to the spaces twixt the dining room/library/drawing room which housed chamber pots. A comfort break after the first course could thus be taken in these spaces as a door either side gave privacy.

    In one of the bedrooms a headboard has the Haddington Motto woven into it; the old Queen Mother always stayed in this bedroom. The Latin motto read: "Prœsto et persisto".

    Inevitably a visitor would ask: "What does it mean in English?" to which I'd reply: "It means 'I undertake and I persevere'.."

    I'd then add: "Not a bad motto for a bedhead, eh?" Usually raised a few titters!

  4. That sounds like positively the most uncomfortable experience I could ever go through. Public speaking chills me to the bone. No thank you...although it sounds like you had a great time, and you couldn't ask for better people to call your friends.

  5. I like speaking in public - but I can't do it extemporaniously very well. Sounds like you had a great time!

  6. @ER - Thanks, I'm glad I managed to get that feeling over.

    @DFTP - Thanks for inviting me.

    @Watercats - I AM the token weirdo of the group usually. Wiw you be my fwiend?

    @PhilipH - I bet you were an excellent and entertaining guide.

    @Justin - Public speaking scares me and thrills me in more or less equal measures. The atmosphere at Toastmasters was so warm and encouraging though that the fear could take a back seat for once.

    @The Bug - It was indeed a great time.

  7. I often recommend my adult stuttering clients attend Toastmasters. It does so much for building confidence and teaching that not only stutterers are afraid of public speaking.


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