How can you make new friends, meet a life partner, articulate what you want to do, learn to sound like you know what you’re doing (even when you don’t) and start taking regular exercise?
In 2002 I needed help with all of these things. I had just finished a distance MBA, which had taken me 3 years of non-stop studying while working. The MBA had inspired me to “go it alone” as a management consultant, and I had quit my job with no clear plans, financial resources, (MBAs are not cheap), contacts, or even friends, all the studying and working having turned me into quite the hermit, emerging from my cave pale, blinking, with atrophied muscles, barely able to speak, let alone make eye-contact.
All the things I tried …
I tried various things in Milan. I signed up for three six month evening courses in things like creative writing and life-drawing, during which I did not learn the name of single co-student.
I joined a political association with about 30 members who met every week or two, to discuss things like how to get a new left-wing mayor elected for Milan (which we were influential in achieving). I learned the names of a dozen of my comrades, but was unable to join in most of the discussions due to a) not knowing what they were talking about most of the time and b) my inability to understand the rules of Italian-style communication (i.e. being too British to just jump in there and risk interrupting someone or repeating something someone had already said.)
I did “Biodanza”, which was a bit like “music and movement” from my primary school days, all pretending to be trees blowing in the wind but with more hugging, plus positive feelings and self-awareness. I learned a few more names at this one, and had an intense one-week serious relationship with a guy, who then became my first real friend in this ‘reconnecting with the human race’ process.
The solution to everything
Then I found Toastmasters, a club for people who want to improve their communication and leadership skills. I went, expecting to find a room full of boardroom-type men, and instead walked into “Shy and Incompetent Communicators Anonymous”. I had found my spiritual home.
Fast-forward to a year later, when I was asked to give a quick talk about Toastmasters to the Milan PWA. This is what I said:
Toastmasters is a club where you learn to communicate with confidence and to lead responsibly. It was started by Ralph Smedley in 1924 in California, and now there are clubs all over the world.
How does Toastmasters work?
You meet twice a month, and every meeting follows the same three-stage format: first, three or four people give short, 6-minute speeches, then there’s a part where people can be asked to improvise for one minute on a given topic, and finally there’s a feedback session, first for the speakers regarding their speech objectives, and then feedback for the whole club.
What do you do, as a member? If you want to develop your public speaking skills, you can follow the 10-speech Competent Communicator programme. Each 6-minute speech practices one aspect of public speaking, for example, organising your speech, body-language, voice or using visual aids. You can follow the programme at your own pace, and with the full support of the other members who are there to give constructive and positive feedback.
A true story
I’d like to tell you about something that happened to me recently that made me notice how much the Toastmasters programme has helped me. I work as a consultant, and a couple of weeks ago I was working at my client company in the UK, when John, the sponsor of the change programme we are working on, decided to involve me at the last
minute in a meeting. I didn’t know who the people were at the meeting, what the meeting was about, or what, exactly, I was doing there. I sat there for fifteen minutes and my mind began to wander. Suddenly, I heard, ‘… and it’s crucial that we get started with this as soon as possible, and I’d like to ask our consultant, Elena, what she thinks the next steps should be.’
I did not panic. I am halfway through the Toastmasters programme, and now I know about sounding organised, and how important voice and body-language are. I breathed deeply, wrote down a few notes, looked everyone in the eye, and spoke. Afterwards John said to me, ‘Good job, Elena. I have no idea what you were talking about, but I liked the way you said it!’
In conclusion, if you want to sound more confident and competent in challenging situations, Toastmasters can make a big difference.”
And, by the way, at Toastmasters I did solve all of the above-mentioned problems I had in 2002.