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Toastmasters Clubs: A great platform for amateur public speakers…

December 7, 2014

Updated 17th Dec 2014

I am not a serious or full-fledged member of any Toastmasters’ club in India. Here in Qatar, my husband is very involved and because of his interest I am motivated to attend all their club meetings when I visit Doha. Whenever I attend one, I am given the honour of being the guest speaker. I enjoy the TM evenings thoroughly! They are such a learning experience.

My husband is a qualified and competent speaker, something he accomplished on his association with TM. In fact now he is a seasoned evaluator/judge at area/district level contests. Big deal when you think how modest his beginnings were. He and his brothers attended primary schools in small towns and villages given their father’s line of work. So even though they were school toppers, they always longed to be good communicators in English language, proficiency of which they lacked.

My eldest BIL topped his PU course and went on to study at MMC. He is now a very renowned private practitioner (MD) seeing a minimum of 500 patients any given day. He is from the old school of medicine who relies so much on diagnosis that comes with experience – and would not ask for scan or a multitude of test reports for everything like it is now with most medical practitioners. He is against indiscriminate usage of antibiotics. Naturally he is our family doc. Anywhere near Ambattur if you mention his name, the locals know him. He is like a star, a mini celebrity.

My 3rd BIL topped his PU as well (last PU batch – after his, the PU college system was scrapped in India, 10+2 schooling was introduced with standard 11 & 12 coming into effect). So his was an year of confusion. He managed to get into College of Engg, Guindy (Anna Univ. main campus).  He majored in mechanical engineering. He was selected by TVS group in campus placements. He worked for them in various plants. The company sent him to France for intensive training, returning from where he resigned and started his own heat treatment plant. Now he is a very successful small scale industrialist, employing over 500 factory workers. The same TVS group is his client for over 15-20 years now! The most successful bro in the family.

My husband played 4th division and league cricket matches that secured him a sports quota seat in Annamalai univ. When we went to Malaysia, he was still struggling with command over language. The basics were good but the overwhelming confidence that comes with convent education was missing. The technical brain was there – anything in maths or science he was good at. But language skills are altogether a different department. The brothers’ greatest weakness was that they were not very fluent in spoken English language, they were not well versed with books like their college mates were, even though they were high academic achievers. But over the years I have seen how the brothers have evolved and have bettered and bettered themselves.

In my husband’s case, I used to draft most of the(official) letters for him in Malaysia lolz! Those were floppy disc days. His secretary was a malay girl who typed out his correspondence in bold letters and kept her computer screened mostly with colourful handsewn lacy covers! A computer was a pricey possession in late ’90s! So I became the unofficial secretary of my husband. I did all the work at home in our PC, copied everything in the floppy and he would ask his sec to take print-out! The site managerial work thus is 2-pronged: civil works plus official records. It was the first time my husband was heading a sensitive site, an ambitious assignment for him, and his clients were British and American companies. You had to be doubly smart when it came to interacting with these guys. Their mail messages were crisp, crystal clear, concise yet forceful and in a way styled my husband’s own official lingo in the process.

Malaysia was a turning point in his life. The problem there was, the local malays and chinese would never use a verb in their sentences which was a worry for me. My husband was forced to communicate with them the same way. Until this day, it affects him at times. He misses a verb subconsciously but gets away with it because he is the boss!

Yet I saw in this 4 year period, his language and communication skills enormously improve. He gradually took to drafting the official matters from me. I am normally generous with words. The chinese training was such that my husband gave no place or reason for any preamble when it came to drafting correspondence. He would go straight to the matter, with no heading or footing like ‘dear sir’ or ýours faithfully’or ‘thank you.’ Just a Sir/Madam at top left. Aplomb with technical terms, with not a single extra word, the letters are a clear testimony to the beautiful swan the ugly duckling turned into in course of time. Now I find it fascinating to go through his official correspondence. Mostly the letters are like missives countering the claims of their clients, consultants, sub-contractors etc. But the mark is unmissable, unsparing, acidic. Point by point. So crisp. Almost short of getting aggressive! May be this style of writing also comes with age, experience and self-confidence.

This transformation in my husband’s nature of correspondence is really like a miracle. Only I know what a sheer hard work it is. In the years 1997-2007 I always saw him buying books that were for grooming oneself with better language, better communication skills. He watched numerous videos on the subject. He was determined to excel in both civil site works and in managing his team while at the same time coordinating with his clients and consultants. He was also answerable to his bosses. Project management is a big headache. Very stressful job. Physically and mentally taxing. The stakes are very high, safety engineering is top priority. You need a level head to fit in the role of managing and coordinating your team. You have to deliver. You need well-honed skills and empathy for staff at the same time.

For last 8-10 years I am seeing such a change in the man who studied in ‘Tamil’ medium schools upto class 8 along with his brothers. My BILs have improved equally well. My industrialist BIL interacts with business tycoons and MDs of manufacturing companies and the way he has turned out is amazing! Where there is will, why won’t there be the way.

My husband joined the Toastmasters club in his Doha office. Ever since, the transformation in him is almost complete.

The TM club provides such a platform for aspiring public speakers. It helps them overcome their initial shyness. In my husband’s case, he was already the boss (in last 15 years) and so he had had a tailor-made or willing audience that stood to rapt attention when he had to speak – which was his staff. They had to! So his confidence level has always been good. Same for my doc BIL and industrialist BIL. Both command authority and hence others have to listen to them when they are addressed to. They are in a position to dictate terms to their listeners that greatly helped them develop their confidence and become leaders.

My husband still makes that occasional grammatical error but the way he’s groomed his public speaking skills is very impressive. TM was the springboard for him in a way. It synthesized his official correspondence skills & office communication with effective public speaking art. The fact that he is an amateur artist also helped. Earlier he was addressing only a select audience like his staff. Now he can interact with any crowd, judge any speaker and can give his valuable opinion. (he is a qualified judge). (He is also into judging children’s painting contests which is another track).

In informal gatherings with families, I have been listening to my husband speak to his staff, address them in general. Its a great show i must say. The supreme confidence is what I like most about him. But then I have never seen him shy of learning anything. If he does not know something , he would seek out and make it a point to master it.

Its not just my husband. I am seeing a good no. of regulars over years in the TM meetings. Mostly in the age bracket 35-55.  Its amazing to see how a number of lives are transformed in these fortnightly gatherings.  TM adds quality to members, encourages out-of-box options and lateral thinking. First of all, you listen to what others have to say. Most of us lack precisely this basic discipline. 5-6 years back I used to scoff (privately) at halted incoherent speech of some amateurs.  My tolerance level to grammatical errors was low. In last 1 year I am seeing how the budding speakers are blossoming  into great public orators with a good level of confidence. Perseverance pays.Practice makes perfect.  As the speakers are acting out initially in front of a familiar crowd, their confidence grows stronger by the day. Week after week they get together and discuss among themselves subject matters of common interest. This is not only a nice way to spend your evening, it is also a great way to get to know people, socialize – an immense learning opportunity. Better speakers can move on to bigger and better circles. Good for our personality development.

My own tryst with public speaking began when I was invited a guest speaker in one of the meets. I was given a table topic and asked to speak on spur of the moment: ‘the best teacher i have ever had.’ I mentioned my mother, managed not to repeat words and kept the timing (4 min). (stopped when the green light turned to amber and finished before it turned red).

But insides i was shaking! Don’t ask me. On that particular evening, there was a full attendance of about 50 men and I was the only woman. That made me kind of jittery! The topic was drawn out of the hat – something for which I was not prepared.

Next time I was once more asked to speak in a family meet of about 30 families (in my role as the boss’s wife) without prior notice. Again i was unprepared. This time I asked people to push their limits. My mind momentarily flashed on something I had blogged about earlier:

‘think the unthinkable, speak the unspeakable, do the undoable.’

It was a message meant for the young team of my husband who were all junior engineers. I was shaking once again – the audience was over 100 strong – but i was told i did well!

In one district level contest that my husband judged, i was deputed the time-keeper. Felt like i received a medal! Because it is a prestigious veterans’ club where speech quality is a cut above the rest. I was picked from the audience to assist with  the stop clock even though I was not a club member. It was an area contest and the speeches were best crafted and well presented. Lovely to listen to such intelligent people speak. All were seasoned speakers.

Last evening there was a TM meet where as a guest, i was asked to give a piece of my mind in the closing. The discussion was on ‘self improvement.’ A highly accomplished woman spoke, but her language could be attributed to her couple of years’ work experience in America. The target speakers are almost always amateurs who improve with time. I do like listening to inspiring speeches but the struggling ones need a platform to showcase their skills. I like the casual flow in some speakers but my husband says it goes against the grain of TM concept. It was formal speaking that they were trying to cultivate and hone in budding public speakers.

,

The lady in question spoke well quoting Abe Lincoln’s case, emphasizing how bosses can improve themselves by not criticizing their staff but by patiently listening to them and gently correcting them if need be. The judges said she lacked the body language and the pitch, but as a woman I felt, that is the maximum animate we women can get. We cannot gesture so bodily, physically like the men do. Again disagrees my husband who has vowed to take me to speeches by some women who will put men to shame with their volume and histrionics.

A Nigerian who spoke next had a message to convey: ‘NO TEXTING WHILE DRIVING.’ But the speech and the incident he narrated failed to move the audience, in particular me. For one thing, he lacked emotion, something some of us subconsciously seek in public speakers: like a kind of empathy… And then, raising your volume does not mean some of us can be convinced. No shouting match is going on anywhere, right? This is not ”Go Nawaz Go’ vs. ‘Ro Imran Ro’ as I see in some tv channels here okay? 🙂

One or 2 more entries were there.

But the Nigerian still went on to win the prize. Congratulated him. In the closing when I was asked for my views I wanted to make a few points on self-improvement. Most valuable points were already made.

Some said: unless you want to change, you cannot change.

The Nigerian borrowed from Gandhi, ‘be the change you want to be.’

etc.

My take was like, self-improvement is 3 dimensional: physical, mental/emotional/psychological and then holistic. But I stopped short of getting elaborate,merely mentioned to the audience of about 30 that I enjoyed the evening and that all speakers were winners. Privately I told the judge, when it came to evaluating women, some points need to be taken note of: like how women cannot match men in body language or perhaps we adopt a different kind of body language that is less dramatic; and secondly how women’s pitch also may seem uniform given the limited volume of our tone compared to husky throaty male voice. The judge said, the suggestions were worth considering.

My son spoke for about 3 minutes too. His was a funny start telling the audience how he was lugged along because he was getting bored at home. He kept his speech short and rounded off on a positive note like how he looked forward to more speeches.  In those few minutes he emphasized how he benefited from attending the meet. His hibernating interest in public speaking was stoked. First formal one for him.

I have to mention Mr.KP who was an area contest winner who was the chief guest for the event. An Andhra man, he presented an education module on how amateur public speakers can go on and improve themselves with practice, leaving their stage fear behind. He began with narrating his own experience and went on to describe to us in a humourous way how he evolved into such a competent speaker. He presented us with demos to underscore his points. What I liked about him was that, he was less dramatic and confessed to using limited body language when it came to expressing himself. His volume was admirably low and held a mystery about it. Yet every single word was clearly audible – his speech lasted for about half an hour, every minute of which was thoroughly engrossing.

How to engage your audience and keep them spellbound: The chief guest said:

1. Open with an element of interest – like a hook to make the audience sit straight and listen to you, taking you seriously. Those first 2-3 minutes will define whether you will be heard out or not! Place your bait at this point – arouse the public curiosity. Ask a question or draw audience into response.

2. After piquing the audience interest, maintain eye contact and make the speech a little personal, like it is ‘between you and me’; First person accounts go a long way in sustaining interest. This is the line. Sound persuasive. Appeal to the audience’s emotional sense.

3. Third comes the sinker – pause dramatically, heighten the mystery, interact with the audience but always roll out the solution before you quit. Close on a positive note letting a ray of hope linger.

Let your speech be motivating, less disparaging, less criticizing and necessarily leave out sex, religion and politics out of discussion.

After listening to Mr. K.P, i am inspired to become a competent speaker as well. It is no surprise he is an Area contest winner. He has his audience hanging on absolutely to his every word. He is a very intelligent speaker. So convincing without raising his voice beyond audible limits. My husband says he is trying out humour only in recent times. Earlier, he used to be a serious speaker. The humour effect works well for him. It is not overdone. My husband has gone on to win ‘Beat the drum’ award for Asia-Africa region  for the third time this year – with his poster making and captioning skills. He gifted the chief guest with a hand-done portrait of his in charcoal. Together the duo have done the Area/Division proud. Both are Indians, a feather to our cap.

This evening again I am headed to one more immensely popular TM club as guest. This is out and out an international crowd. I am not sure whether I will get to speak. Better quality speakers. A friend is picking me up and dropping back. Finished all the cooking, cleanign etc and in the meantime thought would do this bit. (2 men are sulking that i am leaving them behind and going out to enjoy myself lolz.  even though I have everything ready in the dining table. Guys think of how many late evenings wives have to bear with you!!) Here we have 4G broadband so i am online most of the time shuttling between kitchen and my notebook.

Unable to take on a steady membership in TM as I keep dividing my time between Chennai and Doha. I also have one more TM, 2 Thamizh Koottam and 2 Tamil TMs lined up in the 40 days I am to be here. Enough to keep me busy week after week…  This is exclusive of other social engagements. My Qatar calendar is always fully booked. Hopefully by next year I want to start my TM projects here … there is this Eve’s club I have set my eyes on…

Meanwhile is Modi a Toastmaster. Is there today a better public speaker than him in the entire world? How to draw your audience like bee to the nectar! Hats off Modiji! You inspire us all. (My next inspiration in none other than Arnab Goswami hahaha! one can try to match even Modi, but NO hope against Arnab!)

A friend’s husband is an exceptional speaker in an India TM in Delhi.

I do look forward to inspiring, motivating speeches but I get it from experience what TM means to fledgling speakers. It is this target group that is more important, relevant. Once you are in motion, if you have the aptitude, you can take it farther and farther until you reach a milestone… But it is that hesitant bunch of men and women shy that needs to come out of the shell.  From overcoming the initial stage fear to making sensible, coherent little speeches aimed at captivating the audiences with a determined confidence, the middle level workers and staff are quietly bringing on a revolution when it comes to self-improvement.  TM plays a positive role in human resource development. I am witness to some lifetime changes already. I cannot think of a better forum for grooming employee skills and encouraging other aspiring public speakers than TM.

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PS: Updated Dec 9, 2014

After a lively session of TM in a posh hotel  – a coming together of about 18 different nationalities, I have this to say:

The General Evaluator was a very senior distinguished TM – from the Philippines. He made some nice points. Like how it was not his job to judge the speakers. Rather the panel of individual evaluators did that. He was to take into cognizance their valuable input and announce the winners. But it was within his capacity to evaluate the evaluators – or more precisely their evaluation. He had more to share about the evaluation errors and slips.

My next seat was taken by a senior Pakistani executive probably in his ’50s – a rarity you can see only outside India/Pakistan. Like me he was a guest aspiring to become a member. Those coming from France, UK, Italy, Lebanon etc were proud to mention their hometown/nationality somewhere in their speeches, and ofcourse my fellow Indian friends weren’t left behind.  Their stories invariably centred around their home countries and local heroes.

No ‘Table Topic’for the day instead we were all given ‘2’minutes to speak about: ‘bell.” (randomly chosen). And you had to also include in your speech the word last used by your predecessor. The one before me finished with ‘time.’So I spoke: how I looked forward to the time my school bell or college bell would ring to announce the closing of science or maths hour! It was such a relief! The brief round of exchange of views relaxed everyone before the main speeches commenced.

Over all, the TM was a grand success and a sweet evening. Made a lot of friends. Surprisingly a few veterans asked me whether I was the wife of Artist NR. Lolz. First time someone mentioned my husband as artist to me than engineer.

TM is chiefly for non-native English speakers. Its a wonderful place where one can see a Sinhala girl friends with a Sri Lankan Tamil man for instance. Cuts across all barriers like age, sex, academic qualifications, occupation, religion, nationality and race. My plea to Indian speakers would be to tone down their boastful rhetoric – its irritating. Guys you make it sound as if we are a land of milk and honey which we are not. Rather lets listen to others and make this a wonderful learning opportunity.  I am not saying everyone of us is at fault but some of us are. The evaluators are another league. Unless you are a good listener first you cannot become a good and neutral judge. An evaluator’s job is not to qualify a speaker but his speech.

I was best impressed by the Ice-breaker speeches. As the general evaluator rightly mentioned, the speakers qualified for Project 9 straight away. The quality of intake is noteworthy. Sets a very high standard for those like me to meet. I have now made up my mind about which club to take membership in. My friend urges me to give the Eves a miss.  She says its boring. This one is fine.

Back in the home front, it was Mens’ Night IN from 6pm to 11 pm. I found that whatever i cooked was put into freezer boxes. The guys had had a field day – shopping for blue crabs and doing the gravy for self-made chapathis.  Looks like the father taught the son to knead the atta. The kitchen was cleaned up, garbage cleared and disposed and my boy said his dad was a better cook and all-rounder. They had nothing to eat for me – poured out soya milk one glass sheepishly that’s all.  Such a spite because I left them alone for 4-5 hours to fend for themselves!

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Updated Dec 10, 2014

Going to a school that was known for organizing ‘satsangs’ to other lectures, I got to listening to discussions and debates and speeches on every topic very early in my life. Tamil orators are a hit with me probably because they give speech in native Tamil that comes naturally to them. The reach is much better.

In the Alumni Club family meet early this year organized by my husband’s batch, there was a 1 hour speech session by Gopinath (of ‘Neeya Naana” debate fame in Vijay tv). I never thought much about him but I was told he charged 1 lac bucks for 1 hour interaction with public and that aroused my curiosity. I have seen him a lot in tv and he is a very popular personality in TN in last few years. Still nothing prepared me for the way he took the educated and elite crowd by storms. Guys from around the world had assembled with their families in the resort – and this man delivered a speech in ‘shuddh’ Tamil yet held everyone captive with his engrossing stories. He did open his speech posing some interesting questions that left you wracking your brains. Throughout the 1 hour he was on stage he managed to keep the audience involved, keeping us on our toes, drawing us out into interaction with him. It was easy to see why the small town boy is such a successful man today. He said, he was selling soft toys in front of ‘Saravana Stores’ for over 2 years on coming to Chennai and decided he had had enough. What a humble beginning. He cannot be over 40 and he has touched a peak in his life already. The 60 minutes flew away in a jiffy and the packed auditorium did not stop applauding for a long time after he finished. Its years since I have listened to live speeches – mostly now we listen to televised speeches in the comfort zone of our homes. It was a great experience – lending an ear to intelligent speak that rouses your spirit and refreshes you in and out.

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