The video is not playing! The video is not playing!”
Panic had spread quickly among the event organizers. The introductory video, the one that had been in development for a month, the one that was meant to set the tone of the entire technology conference, was—as you might have guessed—not playing.
I looked out at a silent audience of tech-savvy entrepreneurs, project managers and sponsors who had come to the conference to learn about a new technology released by Facebook; they stared hopefully at the giant, blank screen above the stage. As the silence continued second after uncomfortable second, I watched brows furrow in worry—or was it aggravation? I felt for the organizers who were surely in agony during this nerve-wracking quiet.
I knew firsthand how awful situations like this could be. Once, in college, I froze in front of 20 students in my psychology class. Back then, every class that required public speaking gave me hot flashes and cold hands.
Since that embarrassing day in my psychology class, I knew I was afraid of public speaking, and I was convinced there was no way to fix it. For years, I tried everything I could to overcome anxiety. I even tried improv; as long as the crowds were small, and I wasn’t being myself, I could somewhat manage my shaking hands.
Then one day I went to see a friend speak at Toastmasters, but what I really saw was a way out of my own public speaking anxiety. I was inspired by a Toastmaster who’d been a member for 20 years and the skills he and all the other club members possessed. I joined in July 2014.
My fear of speaking was under control in three months, my creativity skyrocketed and my need to connect to audiences was born. Four years later, I faced my biggest public speaking challenge.
The auditorium was quiet, and the stage was bare. The 500-plus attendees stared at the screen they had been told to watch, and nothing happened. In exasperation, a tech worker moved the mouse to see if the computer had frozen, and the audience laughed uncomfortably. Thanks to Toastmasters, it didn’t matter. As emcee of this conference, I was ready to improvise and connect with my audience. It was clear the video would not play, but something had to be done. I grabbed my handheld mic and ran onto the stage.
“Look at me! Look at me! I’m a 3D video! Wow, what a budget they must have!” I shouted. The audience laughed. I opened my arms wide and, with confident body language, welcomed everyone to the conference. “Since this is a tech conference,” I improvised, “it’s only fitting that we have technical difficulties, for irony’s sake.” I was completely relaxed, so the audience relaxed too.
By the end of my introduction, I was getting laughs and applause as I brought out our keynote speaker. I was able to open the conference sans video, and afterward, no one outside of the organizers even mentioned the failed video. In time, I wonder if they will even recall it.
In the four years since I joined Toastmasters, I’ve grown personally and professionally. And I’m more hooked on it than ever before, because I know the secret. The Toastmasters secret that propelled me onto that stage is one every member learns:
I wasn’t a speaker against 500 people, I was a speaker with them. They needed me to reset the tone. And they wanted me to succeed. That knowledge had helped assuage my fear of public speaking years earlier. But I stay in Toastmasters because I keep learning how to be more connected, more inspiring and a better leader.
Anyone who took the stage that day with the audience in their heart would have succeeded; I’m just lucky that it got to be me. Thank you, Toastmasters. This member saved a conference in 2018, and in July 2014, when I walked into my first meeting, you saved me.
Gant Laborde, ACS, ALB is a member of New Orleans Toastmasters and Golden Crescent Toastmasters in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is a software consultant, adjunct professor, published author and award-winning speaker. For more information, visit www.gantlaborde.com.