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July 2024
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The Unsung Skill of a Toastmaster

Facing my fears helped me find courage in all areas of my life.

By Alex Kiester

Woman smiling in green shirt

Before my first Toastmasters meeting, I told my mom, who’d introduced me to the organization, that I only wanted to participate in Table Topics®. I just wanted to practice impromptu speaking, get really good at that, and not worry about anything else. I had it all rationalized: As a writer who’d hopefully have the opportunity to publicize my work one day, I’d just need to be good at interviews. I wasn’t interested in wasting my time learning to run a meeting or giving a speech. I was going to get in, learn the basics, get out.

What is obvious to me now, five years and many Toastmasters roles later, is that I was scared. When I first signed up in 2017, my fear of public speaking had morphed into a full-blown phobia, my throat closing in anxiety when I did anything that even remotely resembled public speaking. It happened when I met new people. It happened when I told stories to my family. It even happened once when I was ordering takeout food over the phone. While standing in front of a group of people and speaking for 60 seconds may be nothing for some, for me, it was as intimidating as Mount Everest.

I began my Toastmasters journey just as I’d planned. Each time I walked through the door, I’d smile, greet my fellow club members, then sit in silence until I was asked to answer my one Table Topics question. With a pounding heart, I’d walk to the podium and fumble through. I rarely spoke for longer than a minute. I never signed up for a meeting role.

Toastmasters has taught me to be brave. And bravery, as it turns out, is the skill that matters most.

But then, one day a few months into this, my club needed a timer. When asked to fill the role, I surprised myself by nodding a silent yes. My voice trembled as I gave my timer’s report that afternoon, but my Table Topics practice kicked in and I got through. So I signed up for another role for the next meeting. And then another and another.

I used to believe Toastmasters fostered communication and leadership skills—nothing more. And yet, the skill it has helped me develop, the one I value far more than any other, isn’t impromptu speaking or running a meeting. It’s courage. After all, the turning point in my journey—the moment I nodded my acceptance of a new role—didn’t require me to even utter a word. All it took, as ludicrously corny as it is to say, was for me to be brave.

Contrary to how courage is often portrayed in books and movies (you’ve either got it or you don’t), my journey through Toastmasters has taught me that bravery is a skill like any other, one you can practice and improve. Each time I stood up in front of my club, heart hammering, my ability and willingness to do things that scare me grew. And it is courage, not fearlessness, that matters: Doing something despite your nerves, rather than in the absence of them, is what challenges you to grow.

While my anxiety in Toastmasters meetings has largely dissipated, my career as a writer has ushered in plenty of new fears to take its place. With the recent publication of my print debut novel, every day I wake up scared. I get anxious for each new public speaking engagement in a higher-stakes arena than my club meeting: at bookstore events and in interviews. I’m nervous about putting my ideas out into the world. I’m terrified of what new readers will think about my book, and as an extension, of me.

As a Toastmaster, I’ve taken risks and built up my courage, which begets courage, which begets courage. I’ve long since accepted that fear is a permanent part of my life, but fear means so much less when you’ve practiced its antidote. I can do interviews, promote my book, and add my voice to the cultural conversation not because I’m not scared to—just the thought of it makes me sweat—but because meeting by meeting, speech by speech, Toastmasters has taught me to be brave. And bravery, as it turns out, is the skill that matters most.


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