I tossed my notecards behind me, wrapped my hand around the mic, and stepped forward to address the crowd. Although I was prepared, a brief moment of fear swept over me before I opened my mouth. It wasn’t my first time speaking publicly about my area of expertise, social media, but it was the first time that I was touted as an expert in front of such a large crowd, and it was the first time in a long time that it was happening in person.
After a few minutes, which I will admit felt much longer, I finished my part of the presentation, thankfully without any egregious errors. I shifted across the stage to put the mic back and let a small smile cross my face. It was over! I had successfully shared my expertise with a room full of eyes staring up at me. But the best part by far was that I had enjoyed doing it.
I work at AKCG–Public Relations Counselors in Glassboro, New Jersey. As a senior account executive, I support the proactive media relations team for the firm’s healthcare, education, and association clients. I also represent the firm in short videos on social media. I recently filmed and published a series of clips that are on YouTube and Instagram. I am expected to lead meetings with senior-level executives for each of my clients. Being able to confidently facilitate meetings and answer questions on the fly have been critical skills.
I am now 29 years old, but anyone who had met me fresh out of college would have never believed that I’d be accepting public speaking opportunities on a regular basis. I was always full of good ideas but often assumed the role of a wallflower and paused at the idea of getting in front of a large group of people.
That all changed in 2019, when I landed on the website for Jolly Road Toastmasters, a club in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. The group boasted the ability to develop leadership and communication skills and increase confidence in its participants. Honestly, it felt like a tall order to fill, but something inside of me knew it would be worth the risk.
A few weeks later, I adhered a name tag onto my sweater and signed into the corporate office where the club met. My coworker, Kayleigh, was by my side, and together we sat down, glanced over the agenda, the club banners, and various other props that were carefully displayed around the room. I watched the speakers who participated throughout the meeting with admiration. I knew after that first meeting that I wanted in.
Jolly Road Toastmasters is where I broke through my fear of public speaking. It’s where I gave my first Table Topics® speech, signed up for my first role, and delivered my first few speeches. I learned how to push past the anxiety of public speaking. And as I learned those skills, I started to accept opportunities to speak in front of coworkers, peers, and even strangers. In my new club, Voorhees Toastmasters Club (which is closer to home), I have continued to hone those skills, especially as I advanced into a Level 4 project of Pathways.
Growing my public speaking skills has required me to intentionally put myself in uncomfortable situations. It’s awkward to stand up and share your voice. It takes courage to brush off those feelings, show up to the next meeting, and try again.
Recently I was asked to lead an hour-long webinar that was open to anyone in the Philadelphia area. The 2019 version of me would have balked at the idea and quickly listed the reasons that I couldn’t do it. But, this year, with the experience afforded by Toastmasters, I felt a jolt of excitement. In fact, I quickly typed “I’m in” and got to work drafting the presentation. It’s moments like these that I realize how much I’ve grown in confidence.
I’m so glad that four years ago I said yes to learning more about Toastmasters. I’m proud of myself for saying yes when I walked through the corporate boardroom to experience the club for the first time. I’m happy for all the times I raised my hand to participate, and for the times I signed up to give a speech.
These small “yesses” allowed me to advance my career trajectory, grow my work, and most importantly, find my voice.
Hannah Merschen is Vice President Public Relations of Voorhees Toastmasters Club in Voorhees, New Jersey.