“I could never do that.” Those are the words I’ve heard from countless people when discussing Toastmasters. I’d tell them about the communication and public speaking skills they can gain and they’d tell me that they don’t have what it takes to do public speaking.
A fundamental misconception that far more people have than I would have believed only a few short years ago is that, in order to be a good public speaker, you have to be born with the right skills. There is a common belief that great speakers such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Ronald Ragan naturally had the necessary skills needed to inspire and impassion their audiences. This misconception seems to be confirmed by people who, without any prior public speaking experience, can stand in front of an audience and give a short speech without losing his or her lunch. I would like to caution those who are of that school of thought to not confuse great speaking skills with a love of being the center of attention.
I, personally, have had a lot of success in Toastmasters, in both the leadership and communication tracks and I definitely was not born with communication or leadership skills. In fact, I am a recovering shy person. Even after giving speeches in front of groups as large as three-hundred people, I still have to give myself a push to talk to strangers, even if they can help me with a problem. When I first started with Toastmasters I was famous for holding onto the lectern with a death grip as I gave my speeches. My first five speeches where some of the most terrifying experiences of my life, but I stayed with it and slowly learned the skills it takes to be an affective speaker.
To say I had natural speaking skills would be a slight misnomer. It took me months before I could give a speech without my knuckles turning white against the sides of the lectern and it took me years – and lots of mistakes and disasters – to develop the confidence I now exhibit in front of a group.
I would love to be able to travel back and see some of the great speakers throughout history give their first speeches. I believe I would not see the polish they are known for. In fact, I’m sure, in many cases I would see a poor speaker, whose audience never expected to hear from them again. In the time I’ve been in Toastmasters I’ve seen people go from, quite literally no discernable speaking skills to becoming great speakers. In that same time, I have jumped by leaps and bounds in my own speaking skills. If I have learned nothing else from Toastmasters, I’ve learned the difference between the great speakers and the ones you’ve never heard of is not natural talents; it’s time, patience and persistence.