The dreaded Thursday had arrived and I shouldn’t be here.
Why on earth was I putting myself through this? I could have been home, relaxing. Watching TV. Writing. I’d made a terrible mistake, but it was too late to back out. How had I (AKA Mr Never-Speak-in-Public. Ever.) allowed myself to be talked into this?
7.22pm and my name was called. Applause. Panic. Light-headed, scarcely able to walk, I dragged myself onstage. I shook the smiling Toastmaster’s hand and moments later, with my head stuck above the parapet, twenty-four (I’d counted them) gun-sights levelled on my sweating forehead. That’s when a black hole swallowed every background noise and the room temperature leapt thirty degrees.
The countdown had begun weeks ago. I’d struggled through a number of roles at King’s Speakers, like Grammarian, Harkmaster, Table Topics. But this was different. I had to deliver a 5-7 minute speech to a packed room. Instead of running (as I’d intended doing for the rest of my life), here I was, and my voice was about to croak and wobble. My chest would lock and I’d run out of air. Like in that recurring-nightmare speech I failed to deliver a quarter century ago. Think gulping goldfish. Think bolting for the door. Think shame.
I hoped no one saw my shaking hand as I placed my notes on the lectern. I took a deep breath but at least I had a plan: I’d stare at a dark patch on the far wall. For variety, I’d study my feet. Imagine that the room is empty, I told myself, like the one I’d been practising in all week.
A minute in, I forgot my lines. But I just about saved the situation by checking my notes. And in those dreadful five seconds (or was it five hours?), no one smirked. The walls didn’t rush in to crush me. In fact, nothing terrible happened at all.
Condemned men can afford to take risks and I’d inserted a few words that bore a distant resemblance to humour. Though delivered too quickly, a couple of people actually laughed. Laughed!
I looked around and everyone was smiling. At me. And the smiles weren’t because they’d deciphered my fluffed joke—they were smiles of encouragement. There was our founder, nodding his support and I could read the thought bubble over his head: you’re doing fine!
When the green light flicked on, I wound it up. I forgot my conclusion without which the speech made little sense. But it didn’t matter because people were clapping. That was when I realised everyone had been in my place before. They knew what it felt like. That we were a team united by a common goal: to improve out public speaking together.
My next speech was a little better, my third (I’m told), was better still. And each time, the fear level dropped.
I’ve visited several Toastmaster clubs and each is unique. Attracting members with speech impediments and social anxiety, King’s Speakers really does set the standard for support and encouragement. Over sixteen months I’ve watched many people battle their demons. And win. And as a club, we’ve all shared their sense of achievement.
Who’d have thought that in a matter of months—not just months, but fun, interesting and rewarding months—the dreaded Thursday would become the highlight of my week?
If they can do it, I can do it. If I can do it, so can you.