Profile: When Public Speaking Is No Cake Walk...

Profile: When Public Speaking Is No Cake Walk...

Toastmasters help bashful bakery owner
on T.V.’s Rachael Ray Show.

By Paul Sterman

Photo Caption: Cake designer Micheline Cummings displays her artistic creations.
She has operated Madame Butterfly Cakes since 2002.

On March 3, Micheline Cummings appeared on the daytime show hosted by Rachael Ray, the perky and popular TV chef who first gained notoriety with her Food Network programs. Micheline (“It’s pronounced like the tire company”) runs her own custom cake shop, but she wasn’t on Ray’s show because the two share common culinary ground. Her presence was tied to a fear of public speaking – and how to overcome it.

So, naturally, Toastmasters played a starring role.

In many ways, Cummings’ story is the type that’s familiar to any Toastmaster: The 35-year-old has long been terrified of the prospect of talking in front of people – to the point where it held her back from professional opportunities and advancement. But in another way, her situation is starkly different: The New Yorker participated in her first Toastmasters meeting under the scrutiny of a huge United States network television audience.

At the meeting of the SEC Roughriders in New York City, Cummings took a turn at Table Topics, then later gave a short talk about her business – Madame Butterfly Cakes. As painfully nerve-wracking as it was, Cummings says that successfully participating in the Toastmasters meeting – simply surviving the speaking experience – was a huge confidence builder. She says it has marked a turning point for her.

“I was on such a high after that meeting,” Cummings says, “I thought, ‘I did it! I didn’t fall apart.’ I was so happy. I was so amazed. I thought, ‘I can do anything now.’

“I was explaining this to somebody the other day: You know how when you’re so used to your old eyeglasses prescription that when you get a new pair of glasses, you can suddenly see everything so clearly? I was so used to that old prescription, that’s what it felt like: All of a sudden, I could see everything….It’s an amazing feeling.”

Madame Butterfly Emerges
Since 2002, Cummings, a self-taught cake designer, has operated Madame Butterfly Cakes in Babylon, New York. The shop has won a fiercely loyal following and has been written about in several magazines. Cummings decorates diversely flavored cakes – meticulously handcrafting each one – for all kinds of special occasions.

But despite her confidence as a maker of edible art, she’s been crippled by anxiety when it comes to communicating with people. She says she’s always felt highly self-conscious whenever meeting strangers or feeling out of place in a situation. And she admits she’s passed up business opportunities when it’s meant veering out of her comfort zone.

For example, one of her customers has a contact at the Food Network, and for years she has urged Cummings to reach out to that person. “I’ve avoided it like the plague,” says the shop owner. Cummings hasn’t wanted to teach cake-decorating classes or compete in contests, and she still feels nervous sometimes talking with newer customers.

She also says she has used her boyfriend, Terry, as a business crutch. He is everything she’s not: socially confident, assertive and a talker. So when it came to business-related errands, such as visiting venues where she would be delivering cakes to a client, Cummings had Terry get out of the car and do all the interacting, ask all the questions.

“I realized I was using him like a front man,” she says.

A Friend, a Pep Talk and…
One day Cummings’ good friend came into the shop.

“She’s very outgoing and we got into this discussion about my fear of public speaking and how it’s kept me from doing certain things. She gave me a pep talk: She said, ‘You’re 35; it’s time to get past it; don’t let it stop you from doing the things you want.’”

The very next day, Cummings heard about a contest being sponsored by the Rachael Ray program: The show wanted to help someone with a fear of public speaking. “I felt it was sort of like fate,” Cummings says. So she decided to be brave, take a chance and send in an entry form.

Two weeks later, she received a call. The Rachael Ray Show had selected her.

“I thought, ‘Oh, God.’”

Ray recruited the actress Valerie Bertinelli to help Cummings conquer her fear. The show’s activities were filmed over a few days in February and the program aired March 3. (Part of the episode – although not the part featuring the Toastmasters meeting – can be viewed on the archives section of the Rachael Ray Web site:

Bertinelli gave Cummings particular challenges to help her grow and gain confidence. She didn’t know what any of the activities would entail before she arrived at them. One was visiting a hypnotist, which Cummings says was extremely helpful. The hynotist helped her work through some issues and gave her some strategies to deal with anxiety.

Another activity was participating in an improvisation class with a group of actors. That didn’t go as well – to say the least. It pushed all the buttons that made Cummings feel uncomfortable and anxious again.

The third test sent her to the SEC Roughriders Toastmasters meeting. Cummings arrived at the downtown New York building on February 13, and after a while of waiting and wondering what she was there for, she was introduced to club president Jerry Wolf. He welcomed her to Toastmasters. Suddenly, Cummings’ mind was racing. Toastmasters?

“I thought, ‘Am I going to a toaster convention?” she recalls. “Then my brain sort of kicked in. ‘Toastmasters, wait, I know that phrase – one of my customers told me about it. Her brother is a member in California, I think.’”

While the cameras rolled, Cummings watched the Toastmasters meeting in rapt attention. Then came Table Topics, and suddenly she was called on to answer a question. The topic? “Octomom” – the California woman who sparked major media attention and controversy after giving birth to octuplets earlier this year.

Cummings decided to try responding. She stood up…and couldn’t think of a word to say.

“I had a moment of intense panic,” she says, “but then a little bit came to me. And then everything clicked, and I started speaking, and I was shocked that I was speaking and making sense, actually, and I was proud of the fact that my hands weren’t shaking.”

In fact, she spoke for a full two minutes.

Witnessing this triumph was Rande Gedaliah, a veteran member of the SEC Roughriders. She was sitting right next to Cummings at the table – and holding her hand for moral support during the entire Table Topics talk.

“She gave a wonderful answer,” notes Gedaliah, who is a professional speaker and runs a communications and coaching firm with her husband, Robert. “Obviously, her voice was shaking a little bit and she wasn’t loud – but she did it!”

Toward the end of the meeting, Cummings spoke again. She gave a short talk about her business career: how she got into cake decorating, started Madame Butterfly and what other ventures she has pursued. As was clear to both club members and TV viewers, Cummings displayed a warm, likeable manner and a gently self-deprecating sense of humor – even poking fun of her own nervousness.

Gedaliah presented an evaluation, mainly so Cummings could have some feedback before tackling her final challenge: giving a speech about her custom cake business on the Rachael Ray Show.

“I mainly pointed out her courage, her humor and the fact that we couldn’t tell she was nervous because she was always smiling,” Gedaliah says. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of her.”

The New York food artist says she’s grateful for how supportive and positive the members of the SEC Roughriders were. They made her feel accepted, she says. “These were Financial District people; I thought I would feel intimidated. But they were so welcoming and just so encouraging. Right away, I got that feeling that I was in a safe place.”

Cummings admits that a few months earlier, her fears made her miss an opportunity. She had been invited to a meeting related to a new business enterprise she’s aiming to become involved with. There were going to be various branch managers meeting around a 20-foot table. Just the kind of thing that intimidated her. So she bowed out, saying she was too busy to attend.

“After the Toastmasters experience, I felt like, ‘I could do that business meeting now,’” Cummings says.

She also feels like she wants to make herself more of a communicator. “I’m playing around with the idea now of going ahead and teaching classes and maybe having an interactive presence – putting myself out there in a bigger way to interact with people and teach.” It’s clearly the attitude of someone with a new-found confidence and ambition.

Cummings was also so encouraged by her Toastmasters experience that she plans to join a club. She says she’d love to join the SEC group but it’s located a little too far away from where she lives. So she’s looking at clubs in the nearby Long Island area of New York. She’s already done some research and talked to a couple of people to find a group that will be a good fit.

“I really feel that I gained so much from going through that Toastmasters meeting and actually standing there being part of that group,” Cummings says of her TV experience.

“I know that if I can gain so much from Toastmasters, there are so many other people who could gain from it, too.”

Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine.