At age 27, Chen Rao has already been involved in Toastmasters far longer than the average member. When she was 15 years old, Rao borrowed 10 dollars from her mother to enroll in a Toastmasters Youth Leadership program (YLP). She had just immigrated to Canada from Chengdu, Sichuan, China, with her mother, and she was eager to get involved in community programs and perfect her English.
In 2010, she turned 18 and was able to officially join a Toastmasters club. She immediately set her sights on earning the Distinguished Toastmaster award, which she did in June 2017.
Rao now works as a treasury officer for Corporate and Institutional Banking, BNP Paribas in New York City, where she’s a member and co-president of her company’s corporate club, BNP Paribas Toastmasters. As she continues participating in Toastmasters, she hopes to inspire millennials to join a club to improve their communication skills in a digitally focused world.
Tell us about the Youth Leadership program.
In many ways, YLP is like a mini version of the full-blown Toastmasters experience. The coaches help teenagers understand everything from prepared and impromptu talks to parliamentary procedures. In my group, the YLP participants offered constructive feedback to each other, just like members in a Toastmasters club evaluate fellow members.
Why were you eager to learn public-speaking skills at such a young age?
I wanted to express myself well in English, so I could make friends after I immigrated to North America. Joining the YLP with that 10 dollars was the best investment I’ve made in my life. Starting with YLP, I gradually learned to speak well and present with confidence.
What do you want fellow young professionals to know about Toastmasters?
In today’s digital age, effective communication and soft skills are even more crucial if you want to make a positive impact in your community. They shape our lives and the relationships we build. How do you promote yourself to land your first job? How do you convince stakeholders to adopt a proposal—be it a project that will increase workplace efficiency or a community project that will benefit those less fortunate? I want more young people to realize that, to get what they want in their personal and professional lives, they need to have solid communication skills.
Why is it important to build speaking skills early in life?
Instilling good speaking habits early is like laying the foundation for a house: You can only add more layers and complexity when you know the foundation can support it. Young people tend to use a fair amount of colloquial language, which may not be suitable for speaking or professional settings. Traps like upspeak, vocal fry and informal diction can be hard to curtail without proper training.
What have you accomplished thanks to your strong speaking skills?
Public speaking has opened many doors for me, not just in terms of opportunities, but also meaningful relationships. As a professional, I thrive at giving keynotes and facilitating workshops for colleagues on the topic of public speaking. I’ve only attained this level of skill because I began at such a young age.
What would you tell millennials about communication and leadership skills?
The best learning is sometimes done via osmosis. Don’t underestimate the power of words and the importance of transparent communication. Put yourself out there early to observe how things are done; try to lead without even being asked to do so,
and you’ll end up doing everything better as a result.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I hope to continue coaching others on effective communication, so they can speak more powerfully and achieve their full potential. Also, I want to help accelerate the growth of the younger generation, because these communication skills can help them thrive in an increasingly complex and digital world.
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Tess Iandiorio is senior editor of the Toastmaster magazine.