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Public Speaking: Scary to Thrilling in 8 Months

Member Iana Vitkova relates how the Toasmasters experience taught her to enjoy public speaking and empowered her to share her experiences with others.

Like many people I used to find public speaking daunting and scary. Add to this the fact that I am fairly introverted and need time to fully process my thoughts before I speak and you can imagine that my natural tendency was to avoid speaking in front of large groups as much as possible.

Two years ago I joined Constant Contact, a digital marketing platform for small businesses, as an engineering manager. Soon after I joined, I realized that knowledge sharing was a very big part of the company culture. Everyone in the organization was encouraged to share ideas in forums of various sizes, from team level lunch and learns to presentations before the entire engineering organization in our “Great Room” which holds over 300 people. In keeping with this company culture I pushed myself to speak up, to present and to ask questions in large meetings. While this was a good start, I realized that having courage wasn’t enough. I needed to develop public speaking skills. This became clear to me after attending a training in which we were asked to speak about our company’s mission while being recorded. Watching that recording was a turning point for me. My language was not clear. I wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked. And worst of all, throughout my speech I was swaying back and forth, which was incredibly distracting. After watching that video, my mind was made up. I was going to join Toastmasters.

Joining Toastmasters was easy. Meetings are open to anyone and you are free to attend as a guest and observe for as long as you like. Sitting in my first meeting was a great experience. Just by observing different speakers, I was learning. What I found really helpful though, were the evaluations, where Toastmasters members provide feedback on the speeches they heard. I realized there is a lot more to public speaking than I had initially thought. How you stand, how you move across the stage, eye contact and vocal variety were all aspects of the speech that were evaluated. I was intrigued.

The first speech every new member gives is called an “Icebreaker”. It’s a speech about yourself. This is a topic which most people find easy to talk about. Toastmasters gives you a framework to follow for organizing a speech which makes it easy to quickly put together your content. After delivering my first speech on how I grew up travelling the world, I received amazing feedback, both positive and constructive. I was encouraged by all the positive feedback I received: on the interesting topic, on not using notes and on my vocal variety. I also loved the tips for improvement: speak louder and move with intention, don’t just pace back and forth during your speech.

Over the course of the next few months I gave many more speeches on all kinds of topics that I found interesting: the Panama Canal, my love for skiing and what I learned from my very extroverted daughter. With each speech I gained more skills and confidence. Soon I was ready to take my skills out into the world.

Being in Toastmasters made it easy for me to say “Yes” to speaking opportunities outside of Toastmasters. When we needed a manager to say a few words in front of the engineering organization I raised my hand. I quickly came up with a speech and practiced it at Toastmasters. I received some great tips for improvement from the group which I incorporated when delivering the speech to the engineering organization.

And then an even bigger opportunity presented itself. I received a message on LinkedIn from the organizers of the Women Impact Tech conference. They wanted me to give a speech and lead a panel discussion at their upcoming conference in Boston. Before joining Toastmasters I would have never dreamed of actually exploring an opportunity like this. But being a Toastmasters member gave me the confidence that I could do this. Moreover, I knew that I would be able to practice my speech at Toastmasters, multiple times, before delivering it at the conference. So I said yes, and embarked on preparing for it.

Once again, the Toastmasters framework made it easy to organize my speech on the Gender Confidence Gap and what women leaders can do to address it. The first time I gave the speech at Toastmasters I was pleasantly surprised at the impact it had on the audience, especially the women, who clearly related to what I was saying. The first time I practiced the speech I received great feedback. My fellow Toastmasters noticed things that I would have never realized myself. Evaluators noted that during the speech I would pause and look down, which was distracting, so the second time I practiced the speech I focused on that and made sure to maintain eye contact with the audience throughout the speech.

The day of the conference everyone kept asking me: “Are you nervous?”. And guess what? I wasn’t nervous. Not at all. I had practiced my speech, received and incorporated feedback so many times that I knew I had this. I was excited! I couldn’t wait to deliver it. When I stepped onto that stage in-front of over 250 women engineers I had a blast! After the speech women came up to me and shared with me how much my speech spoke to them and how relatable it was. It felt amazing to have had such an impact on so many people.

If you are intrigued by the possibility of expanding your influence and learning how to scale your communication I encourage you to look into joining your local Toastmasters club. If you are in or around the Waltham, MA area we would love to see you at our club, which meets at the Constant Contact office on the 2nd, 4th and 5th Wednesdays of the month at 6:30 pm. Send an email to our VP of Membership, or just show up to a meeting and take the first step in this amazing journey.