Joining local Toastmasters club

Life long learning is a challenge. Not only you are supposed to learn but also choose which direction to go. It is a bit easier when you are a technologist of sorts as there are plenty of resources online one can follow, plenty of courses one can buy.

In the last couple of years I made almost no exceptions to what I learned as content was all in the realm of IT. Unfortunately there was little challenge involved as I was marginally improving. Furthermore it felt like a vicious cycle - quite easy to believe in the idea that the most important thing to do next is related to what you do now.

Quite easy to believe in the idea that the most important thing to do next is related to what you do now

I’ve tried what looked like at the time 2 different courses, one was artificial intelligence in Udacity and another - AWS certification. On the surface they seem to be different but the value and effect was the same, they became just another couple of virtue signals on my CV. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying time spent learning was wasted, in contrary it was very informative. My point here is that I was expanding my knowledge but if you imagine this process as if it was on a map then I was just exploring the same corner/location I was already in. Might be it is easier to follow similar path one used to take every day.

Reevaluation

It is not alien for developers to feel like they need to learn everything due to new technologies sprouting every day, due to lack of confidence, due to competition in keeping existing or finding a better job. But what is it you have to learn to move forward?

In my case I tried to figure out couple of parts of this issue:

  • what are my weaknesses
  • what others think my weaknesses are
  • what am I aiming at
  • what experience is necessary to jump higher on a career ladder
  • what is missing in my experience

These questions might look very dry but if you sit down and try to write answers, be prepared to spend some time.

Goals

I always aspired to various leaders and wanted to become one but in a sense never got there, yet. But as soon as I started to attempt bridging the gap of where I am at the moment and where I want to be it became evident what was missing.

Every time you go to a conference and see people on stage or listen to some podcast and hear an interview, there is this person which is in some way a figure of the leader, why would you listen to that person otherwise. Similarly at work when manager/executive speaks s/he grabs your attention, sometimes talking nonsense though. These examples serve as an indicator of what is important if you ever needed or wanted to climb higher - it is a simple everyday activity which is talking. Now there is a difference when you need to talk in front of the audience compared to a chat in a pub, the main one being - fear. Not many of us remain articulate when called to make a toast in a wedding or required to present an idea to stakeholders.

Speaking well is a skill anyone who is in leadership needs to command well. Not many people will like a meek inarticulate individual, let alone do as he says.

Decisions

There are couple of ways you could practice speaking skills but none of those will exclude speaking. Practice makes perfect.

There was this idea at the time to get on a stage. After watching stand-up comedians or and act in a theatre it looked like the very thing to do or learn. I started searching for drama, improv schools but due to my location I couldn’t find anything. Then I thought of meetups and that it could provide me with great opportunity as I could just speak about tech, but again the issue was location so meetups are still postponed until later.

One day I read a blog post, an interview between software engineer I once met and John Papa - influential speaker/contributor in developer community. A tiny bit of that conversation caught my attention where John mentioned Toastmasters. I did hear about it before but it never occurred to me to search for that organisation around the location I live in.

Surprise

It was quite intriguing to find a club which has its twice-a-month meetings within a walking distance from my home. I did not hesitate much and after reading about it more was convinced of necessity to try it out.

Club meetings take place in a hotel, there is a conference room where roughly 30 people gather. If my memory is not lying it was one of March meetings that I have gone to for the first time. As part of the operation there was a greeter, a person welcoming everyone to the event. Guests are always welcome, website said, but I was still a bit nervous not knowing what to expect inside.

Room was full of people but few seats were still available, I got to one of the tables which was behind seating area, the other one was in front of the audience but I had no courage to start from there. After coming closer I saw that table contained couple of name tags, box of cash, evening programme printed in colour and there was also a lady sitting behind. I was pleasantly greeted and politely asked if it was my first time in the club. After a short chit chat I went to the front (rest of the chairs were taken) and took a seat waiting for all to begin.

Club meetings start by following an agreed procedure, introduction of programme and volunteering participants who have roles required for further execution of an event, like grammarian, ah counter, timer, speech evaluator, etc. Members switch roles from meeting to meeting in a volunteering fashion, but some roles stay fixed throughout the year, one of those being a club president.

It was a fascinating and gripping experience from the time I went in. I did enjoy all of it including some great speeches and the welcoming smiles over the tea break.

Ice Breaker

The first speech you need to present after joining the club is called the Ice Breaker. On the one hand it is simple as you have to talk about yourself although preparation should not be ignored. Speech is expected to be written down and needs to follow a basic structure. You are expected to talk for 4-6 minutes in front of your club members. Helpful material such as documentation and videos are available on toastmasters website where you can also find pdf document helping you to structure your speech.

I went to penultimate club meeting before it suspends its activity over the summer and decided to schedule my Ice Breaker. Bravery for such a thing primarily came from thinking that I will not have free slots available before summer starts but I was wrong - there is always a space in calendar for Ice Breakers. Dizziness filled my gut but I knew this step is necessary to break ones fear of being on stage, to start progressing as a speaker.

Although I knew the first speech is expected to be about oneself it was not easy to fill it with words. Luckily one of my train rides inspired me and I started writing what came to the mind. Text was rough and to some extent unreadable but later it was possible to reshape everything into a bearable story.

As far as I understood speeches were to be rehearsed. There are couple of ways you can do it, the simplest - talking in front of the mirror. I did try mirror but it was hard to focus so I went on speaking without it, quite possible my brain rejected the idea of listening to that familiar face. Another alternative was much more natural - I started recording myself on camera. After my first attempt it was clear I had to cut some text out as it took me good 15 minutes before closing paragraph was uttered.

It was time to deliver the speech, I sat in the front row awaiting my turn to face the audience. Meeting started with all aforementioned introductions, there was an evaluator assigned to my speech. It was not the first Ice Breaker that night, another fresh member was delivering speech before me. Soon enough I took couple of steps and started my story, unfortunately I was so anxious not to exceed 6 minutes that I spoke very quickly. Evaluator made great suggestions afterwards which I’ll definitely use next time.

It is important to note that other club members apart from evaluator also participate in your speech. You get short hand written reviews and/or oral remarks and suggestions for further improvement.

What’s next?

It does not end after your first speech and you are expected to choose your Pathway. In addition there are various club roles and projects in Pathways which will help you/me to become a better speaker.

I still have the whole summer but already started thinking about my next speech.

If you have a club not far away then do not be afraid to check it out. Guest visits should be free.

Older post

GitHub login OAuth flow with AWS Lambda

May 28, 2019
May 2019. In a need of Github access token to interact with their API. Adding “Login with GitHub” button should not require deployment of your own serverside app. Sigh.
Continue reading