Two minutes of terror at the podium

Reporter Christopher Reynolds finds himself at a loss for words at local toastmasters club

They say that public speaking is the most common fear, which is a statistic that could also be interpreted like this: public speaking is so scary that everyone’s afraid of it.

Being the New Guy at the Town Crier I knew that when I overheard one of the editors here asking rhetorically, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to do a piece about going to a Toastmasters meeting? I heard it’s terrifying!” the spinning bottle would land on me.

And, of course, being the New Guy I had to pretend to be totally comfortable with the assignment, my faux-confident smile saying “I’m the right man for the job.”

Like most everyone else, it’s not something I’d choose to do for fun. But I’m an adventurous sort (and I like my job) and so off I went to Gavel and Glass, a chapter of Toastmasters International that meets every Thursday at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church near the corner of Don Mills Road and the Donway East.

A series of tables surrounded a podium and gavel and a frayed yellow banner bespangled with ribbons. I took one of the 20 chairs and sat down next to Carol Pratt, a longtime member of the group and sometime professional speaking instructor.

She explained to me that Toastmasters was started in 1924 by man named Ralph C. Smedley and that this particular branch is now in its 55th year.

She explained that as a guest I was entitled to give a two-minute speech near the beginning of the meeting, in a segment called Table Topics, and that I should take the opportunity. With a warm smile, Pratt assured me that I shouldn’t be nervous, that there were speakers of all different levels in attendance.

I looked around the room at the people taking their seats, every one of them looking like they were capable of spinning Churchillian oratory at the drop of a hat.

Sure, don’t be nervous.

Toastmasters is an organization with a long history and a broad reach — there are clubs in over 120 countries — but the thing that struck me immediately as soon as the meeting got underway was that this was an organization that takes itself seriously. And like any other serious endeavor, there are a lot of rules.

Most everyone there had a special designation. There was the General Evaluator, the Chair, the Secretary, the Timer, the Toastmaster and the Table Topics Master. The printed schedule was populated with mini-events like the Development Session, Confirmation of Duty Roster Roles, the Call to Order and the Formal Evaluation Session.

Even more intimidating than the prospect of acquainting myself to the terminology was the strict code of protocol and decorum.

People said things like “Thank you, Mr. Table Topics Master” and addressed people with names like, “Honoured Guest,” whom I eventually came to realize was me.

It was like mental jogging; even before it came time for me to open my mouth I was sweating buckets.

After the theme of the day was announced — Imagination — Mr. Table Topics Master had his way with several of those in attendance, catching them on the spot with topics like “What Would it Be Like to Be a Fish?” and “What Games Did Your Imaginary Friend Play With You?”

I felt a sudden calm. These topics were easy! I found myself wishing it was me who was giving these impromptu speeches. Had I received the Imaginary Friend topic I would tell them that I had felt ripped off as a 10-year-old because I had never had an imaginary friend and so I made one up, a little too late to the imagination bandwagon. It would be hilarious and everyone at the meeting would love me.

And then my new friend Carol got her topic: “What is the Difference Between Belief and Imagination?”

My mind went blank and I started to sweat. Worse than that: my topic was coming.

Carol coolly stood up and wove an engaging mini-speech out of a topic that sounded to me like a non-sequitur in Greek.

With the perfect poise she free-styled things like, “Belief has a beginning and an end while imagination is limitless,” and then spun a yarn about her childhood that had the room roaring with laughter. She ended with a pointed philosophical question that elicited a long moment of quiet reflection from the audience.

Horrifyingly, Mr. Table Topics Master then turned to me and assigned the topic “What Would The World Be Like Without War?”

I stood up, extended my best declarative hand gesture and turned to the man with the gavel at the podium.

“Thank you Mr. Table Topics Master,” I said.

But then I was hit with a series of mental freight trains. I was standing there, 20 pairs of eyes trained on me.

Suddenly I felt like a junior pilot on his first day flying a 747. There I sat, a million controls in front of me, each of them blinking incomprehensibly. Then the pilot said, “Okay son, now you try flying.” I had no idea what to do, and worse, I’m afraid of flying.

Later, my recording revealed the contents of my first Toastmasters speech, all 28 seconds of it:

“Um… ah… thank you Mr. Table Topics Master. I think that war is terrible… but, ah, war has given us many advancements… but maybe we could have come up with those things anyway? Um, and I wonder, ah… oh gosh. Thank you!”

Afterwards, Carol mentioned that some of the club members go out after the meetings for a drink.

Although the booze would have been the perfect antidote to my frayed nerves, both Carol and I knew that I wouldn’t be doing any more public speaking that night.

About this article:

By: Christopher Reynolds
Posted: Mar 8 2010 11:43 am
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto