I spent my entire education, including high school, university, and graduate school, as the quietest student in history. In 4th grade I stopped ever raising my hand, and did not once answer a question for the next 20 years in any classroom.
But I longed to speak in public. Years ago, I was introduced to the non-profit organization, Toastmasters International, where I met the kindest group of people I’ve ever known. The goal of this organization is to “provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.”
The format of the club is to have several planned speeches from regular members and then finish off with extemporaneous talks that last 60 to 90 seconds each. The leader calls out a topic and then randomly calls your name. You compose a speech on the spot.
I’ve made myself a promise I would try almost anything once. I do have a “don’t ever try” list which includes sky-diving, bungee jumping, and jet-skiing. There’s also my “probably won’t try” list, which includes scuba diving and climbing Mount Everest.
Public speaking was on neither list.
The leader of the evening called out my topic: Tell us the most interesting experience you’ve ever had in a restaurant. As I walked up to the front of the lecture hall my legs grew weak and my mind went blank.
I took the stage. What popped into my head was a story about going to a Chinese restaurant with my sister. I explained that we’d finished our meal and were about to open our complimentary fortune cookies, when I noticed a waiter peeking out from behind a screen and staring at me intently. This looked ominous.
I opened the fortune cookie and read it. The fortune said: Prostitute who sleep with judge get honorable discharge.
“It’s an X-rated fortune cookie!” I gasped. The waiter was giggling into his hand as he caught my eye.
The Toastmasters audience laughed and gave me a certificate for the best impromptu speech of the night. One person slipped me a note saying my story wasn’t appropriate for a general audience, but I was thrilled I hadn’t thrown up.
I belonged to that club for more than a year. Every speech I wrote, I revised for hours, rehearsed for more hours in front of a mirror, then revised some more. Yet with all that preparation, when I took the stage, my heart pounded and I’d have a strong urge to run.
Once, a new member of the group told me after one of my speeches, “You’re such a natural. I wish I could be like you, so relaxed and expert. I guess you have to be born that way.”
“No one’s ever born that way,” I said. “I’m a natural because I spend hours preparing. Every time I talk, I think I’ll faint. My relaxed demeanor is an act.”
Do people think you’re a natural at something that is really a result of hard work and practice?