According to a 2014 study, America’s number one fear is public speaking. A quarter of the respondents told Chapman University that they fear public speaking, a percentage that outranked fear of heights, drowning, blood/needles, small spaces and flying, among others.
In the 1990s, comedian Jerry Seinfeld cited a study with similar results, quipping that an American attending a funeral would rather be found in the casket than giving the eulogy.
I don’t know that the casket would be my choice, but public-speaking has been a major fear of mine for a long time. In recent weeks, however, I’ve discovered something that makes me question the rationality behind that fear: Toastmasters International. You may have heard of the organization. You may have even attended a meeting or two. Maybe you’ve gone through the program, completed the hurdles and evolved into a success story, a speaker capable of inducing uproarious laughter and drawing full attention from a room of people. If you’re like me, and find it hard to string together a couple sentences for a crowd, I highly recommend you pay a visit to a local Toastermasters group. Guests attend for free, and if you decide to join, dues are around $20 a quarter, or $80 a year.
I attended my first Toastmasters meeting in a room at the Capitol. As I made my way through the sterile hallways, eyeing the U.S. senator nameplates and state flags, I thought to myself: Dear God, you hate public speaking, why are you about to put yourself through this? But when I arrived, what I found was a welcoming group of people, most of them equally apprehensive about what was ahead. The first speaker was visibly uncomfortable from the start, but in just a few seconds I saw something incredible: He began to feel comfortable, and as his speech continued, he gained confidence, he gathered momentum. By the end, he was moving around the room, making eye contact and drawing nods from his listeners.
Another great thing about attending as a guest is that you will almost always have the chance to participate. (You don’t have to obviously, but why not — if you’re already there?) That chance to speak comes during the Table Topics portion of the meeting, which follows opening introductions and scheduled speakers. During Table Topics someone will ask a question (it could be anything), and the speaker gives an impromptu response. My first meeting I was asked what I was looking forward to that weekend. I nervously went off on some tangent that had nothing to do with the question before circling back and giving an answer. The next meeting I was asked simply, “parent or child,” to which I stammered off about how in childhood you’re more free to live in the moment. The next meeting I was handed a fortune cookie, asked to open it in front of the class and explain why the message applied to my life. Sounds terrifying, right?
But it’s not terrifying. Each group I’ve visited has been incredibly encouraging with their speaker evaluations. These evaluations include info on how long the speaker spoke (if they met their target length), if they made any grammatical errors and how many uhs, ahs, buts, ands and other fillers they injected into their talk.
I was told that I had spoken for about a minute, and believe me, for someone who hates public speaking, that minute felt much, much longer. Somehow in that short minute, I managed something like 10 uhs, eight buts and four ands. That’s a lot of pausing for one minute. Despite these failings, I walked away from each meeting (the next two were in Logan Circle and on M Street) feeling confident that I could build on my ability to speak in public. It’s an incredible feeling to walk away from something you’ve feared your entire life knowing it can be conquered.
In a city like Washington, D.C., there are dozens and dozens of groups that meet on a bi-weekly basis (Find a club). You always have the option to visit a handful of them and then decide which is the right fit.
In “Slaughterhouse Five,” Kurt Vonnegut describes his hero Billy Pilgrim as he’s preparing for a speech at an awards ceremony. “Scared stiff” is how Billy is described. But when Billy opens his mouth, his voice is a “gorgeous instrument,” one that tells jokes that bring down the house, grows serious, tells more jokes and ends on a note of humility. The perfect speech. His explanation? He took a public-speaking course. After attending a few Toastmasters, I can say that there’s a bit of reality to this fiction.