Manner of Speaking: Giving Courage Through Encouragement
From meltdown to mentor.
By Jerry Parsons, DTM
“Those who are lifting the world upward
and onward are those who encourage
more than criticize.” – ELIZABETH HARRISON
It was the most humiliating moment of my life! As a representative of one of the world’s largest insurance companies, I was asked to speak before an association of tiny insurance companies in Illinois. Only minutes into my presentation, however, fear gripped me with such force, I struggled for breath and trembled noticeably. I could not continue, so I sat down, drowning in shame and despair.
Why this particular attack of stage fright far surpassed any I’d ever felt is not important. What happened, however, as a result of that experience nearly 30 years ago changed my life. I had hit bottom, and yet those people who saw my meltdown accepted me into their organization without reproach. And what’s more, they showed me through words and kindness the power of encouragement.
A definition of encouragement is “instilling with courage and hope.” That’s how it worked for me, because the support I received from that audience of insurance company employees enabled me to challenge my fear of speaking, and this led to my discovery of Toastmasters. Soaking up encouragement simultaneously in both organizations enabled to me to take risks and to grow as a communicator and as a person.
I progressed as a speaker, and the small rural insurance companies in the association provided the first opportunities for me to give humorous and inspirational talks outside my Toastmasters club. This led to opportunities to speak for diverse audiences in several states. A highlight was when I spoke, years ago, at the national convention of the same insurance association I had faced and failed years earlier. I told 900 people that day how much the encouragement from their peers had empowered me.
It was in Toastmasters, however, that I most felt the value of encouraging others. Having battled through anxiety, self-doubt and disappointment, I felt especially attuned to the need for encouragement in my fellow Toastmasters members. Encouraging others came naturally for me.
Opportunities to encourage others abound in our clubs and at other Toastmasters events. For example, when a contestant named John Hutchins gave a powerful speech in a local speech contest, I sensed he was very disappointed and discouraged at not winning. Even though he belonged to another club and I did not know him well, I wrote him a letter telling him that I had experienced similar disappointments but had used these as motivation to prove myself as a speaker. More important, however, I stressed all of the positive traits he had going for him and encouraged him to continue his quest to be an outstanding speaker.
John really blossomed as a Toastmaster, serving in numerous offices in District 54, including district governor, before moving to Wisconsin where he earned his DTM and served as a district governor again. John and I became reacquainted in 2000 at a Toastmasters region conference in Peoria, Illinois, where he introduced me as the keynote speaker. In doing so, he pulled from his pocket a crumpled sheet of paper and read it – it was the letter I had sent him more that a decade earlier. He told how my letter had contributed to his resolve to succeed in Toastmasters.
Tragically, in 2003 John died in an auto accident. Soon afterward, I learned that he was an encourager. Various articles in his club newsletters attested to this. An article in the Allis Chalmers club 189 newsletter by DTM Kathy Shine credits John’s mentoring for much of her personal and professional growth. She said John “saw something that nobody else had seen” and encouraged her to accept new challenges.
Although I have no way of knowing how much that letter of mine actually influenced John, the mere possibility that it had an impact is affirming for one who believes that those who are encouraged tend to become encouragers.
Often, we do not get to see the results of the encouragement we give, and we should not expect to. However, there’s much reason to give it anyway. Author George M. Adams says: “Note how good you feel after you have encouraged someone else. No other argument is necessary to suggest that we never miss the opportunity to give encouragement.”
Mastering the Art of Encouragement
Consider being a mentor if you have the experience. This is a structured and proven way of providing encour agement. However, everyone needs encouragement, so you can be a regular encourager in Toastmasters. To do this, you should be:
• Intentional. Offering encouragement takes extra effort and a sense of purpose. It doesn’t happen accidentally. Listen carefully and pay attention to cues such as body language as well as words. Assume that it is your responsibility and privilege as part of being a Toastmaster and be alert for opportunities, not only at regular club meetings but also at other occasions. For example, say something kind when you’ve seen a person speak at a special event, such as a contest or conference.
• Empathetic. Be especially attentive to the needs of others. What did it feel like when you gave your Ice Breaker or tried a new role for the first time? Were you ever embarrassed, disappointed or discouraged? Think about how you felt. Did someone encourage you? If not, imagine how encouragement might have helped. Use these thoughts to help you detect who needs encouragement and how to give it. Keep in mind that even the most experienced Toastmaster still needs approval and support.
• Specific. Follow the basic guidelines for an effective evaluation. Don’t just say, “Good job!” Provide details, especially concerning progress. Showing someone that you’re paying attention can be encouraging in itself. Offer suggestions and remember that constructive criticism can be as inspiring as compliments.
• Sincere. One way to show your sincerity is to offer feedback more than just once, for as long as you sense there’s a need. But don’t dole out unmerited praise or flattery. Don’t exaggerate a person’s competence or potential. Being believable will help to build trust.
• Prompt. Respond as soon as possible, preferably face-to-face. Making affirming comments publicly, when appropriate, can compound the positive effect. Providing a brief written comment at the end of the meeting may be helpful too.
• Thorough. Following up by writing a detailed letter of encouragement can really uplift a speaker. E-mail is also a suitable method for doing this. Putting words in writing not only reinforces oral comments but it also provides a bonus – a tangible document that the recipient can save and refer to for needed encouragement.
• Creative. Use your imagination when giving feedback or support. You might, for example, seek recognition for someone’s achievements by writing an article in a club newsletter or a congratulatory note to the person’s employer or super visor. (But be sure to ask the person’s permission first.) You might also send a greeting card or some token that expresses a sentiment.
Once, after I had an especially trying time during a meeting, someone sent me, anonymously, a single yellow rose with a note of encouragement. It made my day! Let’s do the same for others.
Jerry Parsons, DTM, is a member of Emerson Street Speaker Club 1668 in Bloomington, Illinois.