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!