As a medical student, few things were more nerve-racking than to be on rounds waiting my turn to present a patient. I always hoped to be first so I could get it over with, however, it did not usually work out that way. We all had to wait our turn. 

Meanwhile, my anxiety would build — a familiar experience for those who suffer from a common phobia, fear of public speaking. In retrospect, it wasn’t that big a deal. At the time, though, it was an ordeal that I dreaded. 

Of course, not all days were equally terrifying, and preparation certainly helped. However, no matter how prepared I was, I could never be sure what questions or comments my resident or attending physician might throw at me.

Then, relief came from an unexpected source. My neighbor invited me to attend a meeting of her Toastmasters club. The invitation was actually part of her efforts to expand the membership of her particular club. She wasn’t inviting me because she knew that I was uncomfortable with public speaking. However, it turned out to be a win-win for both of us!

I had no idea what Toastmasters was, nor what to expect when I agreed to go. My neighbor explained briefly that the group brought together people to share interests and work on public speaking skills. I later learned that Toastmasters International is a nonprofit organization with a mission statement that states that they “provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment in which every member has the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth.”

One thing that quickly became clear at that first meeting was that everyone at the meeting was expected to participate. Also, for each meeting, group members take turns at specific roles.  

One person is chosen to be the emcee or “Toastmaster.”  This person leads the meeting, welcomes guests, introduces that evening’s scheduled speakers and closes the meeting.

The scheduled speakers each give a brief speech, which they have practiced beforehand, that runs about 5 to 10 minutes long. (One of the most important things you learn in Toastmasters is that good preparation is a key way to reduce anxiety about speaking in public.)

After each speech, another member, called the “Evaluator,” takes the podium. This person gives a brief recap of the presentation, including positive feedback as well as constructive comments — which are usually well received.

An additional person functions as the “Ah” Counter — someone who tallies all the “likes,” “ums” and, of course, “ahs.” 

Finally, there is a member who functions as the Topics Master for the evening. It’s the Topics Master’s job to come up with a question and call on unsuspecting members to come up to the podium and spontaneously answer it “on the fly.” This is a particularly beneficial part of the program, as it helps members develop the skill of thinking on their feet.

I participated in Toastmasters for nearly two years while living in New Orleans. I found it refreshing that the people in my group were not in the medical field, but instead were diverse both in terms of careers and culture. There also was a range of speaking expertise, from raw beginners to seasoned orators, who contributed while continuing to hone their skills.

By the time I left the New Orleans Toastmasters group, I had come a long way from the first nervous, ice-breaking speech I made at the beginning. In fact, I’m proud to say that I ended up representing our club in the state speech contest!

I highly recommend Toastmasters to friends, colleagues, patients and anyone who wants to improve his or her skills as a communicator and a leader — and who wants to feel more self-confident and less anxious when speaking in front of a crowd.

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