Last night I attended my first meeting of Shropshire Speakers – my local Toastmasters group. This was part of my ongoing mission to finally tackle my crippling fear of public speaking – remember I’m blogging about this specifically over on my Public Speaking Quest blog.

You may well know all about Toastmasters already, but here is how I explained it to my five year old: It’s a place where people go to practice speaking on front of lots of other people and get better at it. Toastmasters have a slightly more detailed explanation on their website here. It’s an international organisation, with member groups all over the world, and Shropshire Speakers is the one most local to me, meeting in Telford.

I did not have a clue what to expect. Thankfully I was one of three ‘guests’, so I didn’t feel too conspicuous. Here’s a brief description of what happens at a meeting, for anyone who might be interested in doing something similar. (If not, skip to the end for my take on it all.)

Although incredibly warm and friendly, the meeting was formal in structure, with a printed out schedule on each seat and with everyone (members, that is) taking a different role, such as toastmaster, evaluator, timekeeper etc. There were two actual speeches, both excellent, and a session of short 1-2 minute talks where everyone was expected to talk about a topic they were given a couple of seconds beforehand. I bowed out of this, as you might expect, but I will have a go next time.

Each person to approach the lectern – and with the various roles involved, everyone got time at the lectern at some point – had to shake hands with the person leaving it, and the group clapped for encouragement and appreciation. The meeting itself was just under two hours, and apart from being starving hungry – it ran right over my usual dinner time! – it went pretty quickly.

Well, I enjoyed the session immensely. The other members varied a lot in terms of confidence and public speaking experience, but everyone was there to improve and I loved that encouraging atmosphere. And guess what? I stood up and spoke. Oh yes, during the warm up session we were invited to speak briefly about a warm up topic (sport) and I took my turn, telling the group about my hubby and his cycling obsession and that I call him a ‘MAMIL’ (middle-aged man in lycra). This raised a few laughs, which broke the ice. But I was proud of myself for just doing it – as my turn got nearer I could feel my legs getting really heavy, my heart was racing, and the people around me got sort of fuzzy. Talking to one of the other members after, he explained that this was just a chemical thing, adrenaline and cortisol, and that everyone experienced it. Funny thing was, it went away as soon as I started talking. I found it hard to focus on what I was saying and think about my body language, eye contact, voice etc at the same time, but I’m sure this comes with practice. And I do intend to practice. I remember when I first learnt to drive a car – how, I wondered, will I ever be able to steer, change gears, put my feet on the right pedals, and look at the road at the same time? Of course, now I do all this unconsciously, and for the first time in my life I now believe that speaking in public could be exactly the same – a skill you can learn and practice.

I’ll be back next month to sign up officially, but in the meantime I feel I’ve made an important first step in my journey, and the Festival of Romance in Bedford isn’t seeming quite so scary anymore … 🙂