Tonight, I am to be the Toastmaster for the evening at my Toastmasters Club meeting. That means I am to be the Master of Ceremonies for the portion of the meeting that is devoted to giving prepared speeches.
A Toastmasters club is a gathering of folks who want to improve their communication and leadership skills. We accomplish this by presenting short speeches at our meetings. Each speaker then has an evaluator, who presents a brief critique of the speech. It’s called an evaluation though, because we emphasize the strengths and the growth of each speaker and offer suggestions for improvement. We have manuals to work from, which guide us in focusing on many facets of public speaking, such as vocal variety, posture, gestures, speech construction, and respect for time. Most speeches are from 5 to 7 minutes long. The manuals cover subjects such as presenting awards, accepting awards, performing a roast, after-dinner entertainment, press conferences and much more. It is a safe and friendly venue for learning to be comfortable with communication, whether it is in front of your boss, in front of your employees, or in front of an auditorium full of strangers. We have contests that start on the club level and continue to the district level. The winners of the district level contest then go on to compete in the International Speech Contests.
I learned about Toastmasters from a friend who happens to also be blind. At a Mary Kay party I hosted about 10 years ago, Barbara mentioned that she had participated in a speech contest that day. Of course we all insisted she give us her speech. It sounded like fun, and I thought, “I could do that.” I love performing—always have, and unlike most people, I had no fear of public speaking. That’s not to say that my knees weren’t knocking the first time I gave a speech. It’s true. They were actually shaking, but I was loving it.
As a toastmaster who is blind, I’ve had a few obstacles to overcome, but just like everything else in my life, I’ve developed what I call “work-arounds.” First, there’s the issue of gestures. Standing behind a lectern and holding onto it for dear life is going to give the impression that you are scared stiff, and you will probably be boring. You need to move around, or at least move the top half of your body. I hadn’t been able to see the gestures people make as they speak for years, so it took some practice to make mine look natural. Then there’s eye contact, which is vital to engaging your audience, but I’ve been told I do a pretty good job of faking it. Over the years, I’ve become fairly comfortable with stepping out from behind that lectern, but when I’m competing, I use a not so secret prop. Before I begin my speech, I place a throw rug in front of the lectern, and I stand on it for the duration of my speech, stepping to the right or to the left, but never leaving that home base. It gives me a frame of reference, so I don’t wind up addressing the back wall.
I’m still working on a graceful way to approach the lectern and then return to my seat unassisted. It would be so easy if we met in a conference room, where a table lectern was set up. Then I could just sit nearby and step over to the lectern. In our meeting place, however, the lectern is out in the middle of nowhere, facing rows of chairs in a large church sanctuary. Tonight, because I will be going to and from the lectern several times, as I introduce each speaker on the agenda, I will sit in the front row, center. That way, I can take 4 confident steps forward, and I’ll be there. The only problem with this plan is that nobody likes to sit in the front row, so I’ll be sitting alone. I don’t like sitting alone, but we all have choices, and in this case, I choose to sit where I can perform my duties efficiently and without drawing attention to my disability. I’ll socialize next time.