Profile: Finding His Voice
How a tongue-tied writer turned to
Toastmasters for help in handling talk shows.
By Julie Bawden Davis
If not for Toastmasters, Neil Chethik is sure he’d spend most days in a small, dimly lit room hunched over a computer. Instead the successful book author regularly speaks to large audiences throughout the United States, often appearing on TV and radio.
“Toastmasters has opened more doors in my career than I can count,” says Chethik, whose most recent book, VoiceMale: What Men Really Think About Their Marriages, was released by Simon & Schuster last year. “I belong to many organizations, but I can say for sure that this group has had the biggest impact on my career.”
Every time Chethik considers how far he’s come as a speaker, he hardly recognizes his former self. “I was a voice-a-phobe,” he says. “I couldn’t stand in front of an audience without shaking, quaking and worrying about my mind going blank.”
Chethik attributes his anxiety to an unfortunate experience as a child. “I appeared in a class play when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I blanked out on my lines, which was very traumatic at the time,” he says. “After that, in middle school and high school, I became quiet and withdrawn.”
When it came time to choose a career, Chethik decided on writing because it meant spending his time alone behind a computer screen. He eventually found that he couldn’t run from speaking forever. In the 1990s, after 12 years in the newspaper business, he left to pursue a career as a book author and soon found it necessary to break his silence.
“I decided to stop reporting in order to focus on some particular topics and write in depth about them,” says Chethik, who started writing about men’s psychology and their personal lives, including a syndicated column on the subject. When he began working on his first book, FatherLoss: How Men Deal With the Deaths of Their Dads (Hyperion, 2001), he decided to overcome his fear of public speaking.
“Unless I learned to speak in public, I would have never had a successful career as an author,” he says. “You can write a great book, but if you can’t market it, speak about it, and publicize it, it will fail.”
Chethik went to his first Toastmasters meeting in 1998 at the Downtown Lunch Bunch club in Lexington, Kentucky, where he has earned a CTM and is still a member. Although he remembers feeling overwhelming anxiety on his first visits, he kept attending and gradually became more comfortable. Two years after joining, he had the eye-opening experience of serving as club president.
“I was required to be spontaneous every week, welcoming members and new visitors and making announcements. As a result, I became very comfortable in front of groups and found that I actually enjoyed speaking,” he says.
During those first few years, Chethik practiced Table Topics frequently. “I would flip through the telephone book and talk about whatever was at the top of the page for a minute at a time,” he says. “I found practicing Table Topics invaluable because it taught me to focus on one subject and perhaps even more importantly, to trust myself.”
Today when he speaks, Chethik has found that audiences enjoy his question-and-answer period immensely. “In my presentations, I strive to help people understand their lives and relationships, and they always tell me that my interplay is natural and spontaneous,” he says. “Thanks to my Table Topics training, I’m not afraid to take a shot at an answer.”
Fellow club member Jerry Young agrees that Chethik’s skill at Table Topics has served him well as a speaker. “Neil has made phenomenal progress, becoming an accomplished, smooth speaker over the years,” says Young, who has been a Toastmaster for 40 years and is a past governor for District 40.
“Although his content has always been good, in the beginning he stuttered and got very nervous. He’s improved greatly at fielding questions, and I attribute a great deal of that to Toastmasters. Neil can handle whatever is thrown at him quickly and efficiently, remaining unflustered and talking eloquently off the cuff. These are valuable skills when you appear on radio and TV.”
In 2001 after he’d been a Toastmaster for four years, Chethik’s first book came out and it was time to start talking.
“The first time I spoke it was about men and grief at a church in San Diego,” says Chethik, who was nervous initially, but soon felt at ease. “All of my Toastmasters training and practice came into play, and I felt very confident.”
Since that first speech, Chethik has spoken throughout the United States at churches and organizations such as social worker associations and grief support groups, elaborating on subjects such as grief, fathers raising sons and how men feel about their marriages. He has also appeared on many radio shows, including NPR (National Public Radio) and television programs such as ABC’s Good Morning America, where his four-minute interview with Charles Gibson resulted in overnight hardcover sales of about 5,000 copies of his second book, Voice Male.
Before his appearance on Good Morning America, Chethik was understandably nervous, but says he felt calm the morning of the show. About 20 minutes before he appeared on air, however, he had an urge to drink water. “I was relaxed on the outside, but internally sweating, and I probably downed about 50 ounces before going on the air,” he remembers. “Right before the show started, I asked Charles Gibson what his first question would be and knowing that helped me feel prepared and focused. The show went really well.”
Since his Good Morning America appearance last year, Chethik has spoken to a variety of large audiences, some with 1,000 listeners. Every month he appears on a television segment for a local CBS station where he talks about men and their relationships. He also does radio interviews several times a week and has conducted marriage workshops with his wife of 13 years, Kelly Flood, who is a minister.
“My wife spent many years in front of audiences and is very comfortable speaking, so working with her has also taught me a lot,” says Chethik, whose 13-year-old son, Evan, is performing as a child actor in local productions.
Though over the years Chethik has occasionally considered ending his Toastmasters membership, he always decides against doing so and continues to attend meetings regularly.
“Speaking is a lot like playing an instrument,” he says. “It’s important to continually practice so you don’t get rusty, and Toastmasters is the best place to do that.” In the last few years Chethik has also enjoyed mentoring a variety of new members.
“It’s hard to believe that I am someone that people want to emulate, considering how nervous I was for so long, but mentoring is an incredibly gratifying experience,” he says. “I can relate to the fear and anxiety people have coming in, and I enjoy seeing them progress.”
Those Chethik has mentored have found his advice especially helpful. “Neil is not only a great speaker, he gives excellent feedback,” says Rob Ferguson, who was a member of the Lunch Bunch before he moved out of the area to North Carolina. “In 1999 I was a contest winner in the national championships, and it was Neil’s assistance that helped me achieve that goal.”
Attending Toastmasters still opens up Chethik’s horizons. “I get a lot of new ideas for my writing from the questions people ask me when I’m speaking,” says Chethik.
“It’s incredible to me that I get paid to speak, when I was afraid to open my mouth for so long,” he says. “I credit Toastmasters for helping me make my career shift and realize my potential.”
For more information, visit www.neilchethik.com.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California. Reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com
Editor's Note: Do you have an inspiring story of how the Toastmasters program has helped you? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org