My Turn: Facing the Fear and Finding...a Daredevil Speaker!

My Turn: Facing the Fear and Finding...a Daredevil Speaker!

That's what Toastmasters can do for you!

By David Dawson

I have always been a bit of a daredevil. In terms of physical adventures, I’ve tried just about everything from skydiving to deep-sea diving. So the notion of being afraid of an inherently safe activity such as speaking in front of an audience was inconceivable to me – until I started doing it. A series of events that went from bad to worse drove me into an unremitting fear of public speaking that, thanks to Toast masters, I’ve been able to overcome.

It all started after my military service. I went back to college ready to learn the subjects that, just a few years earlier, had made military service an attractive option. Ready to face anything, I volunteered to present a team project during my first year. This presentation went terribly bad. Not even five seconds into it, my mind went blank and I forgot the name of one of my teammates. I was so stuck that I could not find a way out. My teammate finally shouted his name from the back of the room, but I was already doomed. I forgot key words, and worse yet, my notes became blurry and worthless. My performance let everyone down.

The following year, the death of a friend again put me in front of a crowd. I was asked by his family to speak at the funeral. It never crossed my mind that I’d have to do anything like this, but I wanted to pay tribute to his life. Leery about my own abilities, I decided not to write a full speech, but just to reminisce and offer a few anecdotes. If underestimating the value of writing the speech was a dangerous mistake, not rehearsing it led to a complete debacle. The sadness of the occasion was not enough to inhibit my fears. I forgot most of what I was going to say, the words didn’t come right, and in the silence of the church, the sound of my voice echoed awkwardly and incoherently. I ended up deeply disappointed with myself. I could do better than that. I just didn’t know how.

It wasn’t until I started working as an engineer that I found hope. I was terrified of giving presentations, feeling sick to my stomach and hating the tremor in my voice. Speak ing in meetings was exhausting. “Whatever happened to the daredevil guy who was ready to face anything?” I wondered. Then, I found the Naval R&D Toastmasters club. This club was mentored by Helen Blanchard, DTM, the first female Toastmaster to become an Inter national President. From day one, I realized I had found what I needed. Nonetheless, I didn’t pursue my Toastmasters goals diligently. It took me a long time to get my Competent Communicator certification. So the day I became one, I didn’t realize the profound changes that had quietly taken place in me. “No big deal. It’s just another useless certificate,” I thought.

I finished my CC manual with the “Research Your Topic” project, and for this speech, I used a presentation that I was to deliver at work earlier the same day. This proposal was important to me and I was concerned about it, given my disastrous experiences. So practicing it as a Toastmasters’ manual speech really helped to put the experience in proper perspective. As I waited for my turn to present it to a real panel of judges, I observed another speaker being grilled with questions. These panelists weren’t the friendly Toastmasters crowd I’d grown used to – it was more like an inquisition! Just a year earlier, I would have been sweating through a panic attack. Instead, I remained calm.

I entered the room confidently, greeting everyone and presenting myself to the panel. The introduction went well, no tremor in my voice. The body of the speech was technical but I kept everyone engaged – so much so that they assailed me with questions. I replied to every concern and stuck to my organization. I was even able to count ah’s. I managed to recover from all interruptions, compressing the speech and concluding with a summary of the main points. I left the room feeling good, and afterward, I delivered the same speech to a less technical audience in our Toastmasters meeting. It went great!

Later that day, while reflecting on both speeches, I realized that my pre sentation skills had truly improv ed. I managed to improvise, rephrase and compress with ease, and finish speaking right on time. I still have more to learn, but my fear of speaking in public is gone. I’m ready to face anything again. I told Helen Blanchard about it, and she replied simply, “That’s what Toastmaster’s will do for you.” How true!

David Dawson is an electrical engineer working for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego, California. He is currently serving as president of the Naval R&D Toastmasters Club.