My Turn: My Ice Breaker
Surviving the roller-coaster ride of that first speech.
By Richard Stanley
Okay. Here I go. The Toastmaster of the Day has completed my introduction and the last few precious moments of safety are gone. It’s time to rise and walk to the podium... I mean, lectern.
I feel a sensation. I recognize it as the same feeling I get when the guard rail clicks in front of me on a roller coaster just before it starts to move. Whatever happens, I am now committed to seeing this speech through. Feelings of excitement, fear and acceptance of the inevitable well up within me.
I scan the audience of eager faces full of anticipation. They all look at me, smiling with encouragement.
That’s right, smile – I should do that. Now words. I should say some words. What was that clever introduction I had written out? I can’t remember. I stare at my notes and they look like ants crawling on a page. Time is ticking by. Say something!
“Hello, my fellow Toastmasters...” Not original, but good enough. It ended the silence.
The words are starting to flow. They are similar to what I wrote and rehearsed, but not exactly the same. I keep paraphrasing all the eloquent and meaningful sentences I had labored to perfect. I was not expecting that, but it’s okay. I am speaking. Yes, actually speaking! I was doing what I thought I could never do.
A few weeks ago, after months of watching others speak, I finally worked up the courage to give my first speech. Between then and now, I’ve paddled through swells of enthusiasm and tidal waves of self-doubt.
But now I am speaking, and it’s not bad. I can talk and the audience seems to be listening. It’s time for the joke. I’ve rehearsed this joke. It is perfect and will really put me over the top. I tell it. Blank expressions from the audience. Polite laughter maybe, but mostly no laughter. What happened?
I remind myself not to panic. Keep going. I look at my notes, trying to find the right spot. Just keep talking; get back into the rhythm.
Okay, I’m back on track.
Suddenly, my mind goes blank. Everything is gone. The universe stops and empties. It refills with audience. Lots of audience, but no words. I can only blink.
“Uh...um...you see...like...uh,” my mouth continues saying, while my mind tries to figure out what to do.
Stop! Calm down. Breathe. Breathe deeper.
Time is ticking. Expectant faces keep looking at me. Those encouraging smiles reappear. I look at my notes again and pick another spot. “Another thing is...”
Awkward, but it will have to do. I missed some important points, some great stories, but it can’t be helped now. At least the words are back and flowing.
The audience is engaged again. I’m feeling it now. The words are coming easily and I am going in a direction I hadn’t planned to. A joke comes out of nowhere. Everyone laughs loudly. How did that happen? I tell another joke and they laugh again. This is great! I have them in the palm of my hand. Abe Lincoln has nothing on me.
Red. I see a flashing red. That means something. I am out of time. How?! I just started, and I want more time.
Unoriginal and awkward. Again. Maybe I am not Abraham Lincoln yet.
I leave the lectern, exhale in relief and decide that speaking is really like riding a roller coaster: It’s scary and thrilling at the same time; full of ups and downs. And just like all great roller-coaster rides, I want to run back in line for another go. But maybe with a better planned joke.
That’s the story of my first Toastmasters speech. Now I’m the president of my club, but parts of that experience have been repeated in nearly all my speeches.
When new members ask me for advice about their Ice Breakers, I tell them not to worry about sharing pearls of wisdom, because that’s not the important part. The important part is realizing that you have something worth saying, and saying it will not kill you.
So don’t be discouraged when your speech stalls as your mind goes blank or a joke falls flat. It happens to all of us and we all know what it’s like.
Richard Stanley is president of Fluor Discovery Toastmasters and a process engineer at Fluor Corporation in Irvine, California. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.