Three things I learned from my first digital Toastmasters conference

I was ecstatic. I had just emailed my receipt to the organisers to confirm my place. The District Toastmasters Annual Conference (lovingly known as DTAC by Toastmasters) was to be held in Abu Dhabi this year and I couldn’t wait for my first Toastmaster weekend of learning and new experiences.

Alas, as with everything in 2020, the pandemic swept that away. But instead, it paved a whole new experience, equally enriching and just as powerful.

Despite the darkness surrounding the world, DTAC shone rays of hope into our homes, illuminating the path to forge forward courageously for a new year ahead.

In light of lockdown, Toastmaster’s have adapted tremendously well in converting in-person meetings to the online sphere. This conference was a culmination of all of the months of change we have had to adapt to — if I may so, DTAC 2020 was indeed a celebration of change.

But wait — what is Toastmasters?

Simply put, it’s a seemingly innocent organisation luring you in on the premise that you can improve your public speaking. I say innocent because that it most certainly is not.

Vivacious personalities, bubbling energy and pure positivity fill the room to full capacity — they will push your capabilities and stretch you further than you could imagine.

But don’t let that scare you. The experience is what you intend from it. Whether to overcome speech anxiety or learn how to be a leader, this is a place accommodating to all people. Essentially, Toastmasters pushes everyone onto the stage for their own good. You will come out of it having learned how to be a competent communicator, (“resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth”).

So, let’s get back to the conference

I was left gaping at my laptop screen.

It was just after 12:30 pm on Friday 29th May and the conference had kicked off. Images of the DTAC 2019 flicked past. I watched as the number ticker on the top-left corner of the Zoom call shot beyond 1000.

DTAC precedes the Toastmasters International Convention. It’s a convening of the entire District, which comprises four countries — UAE, Jordan, Oman and Lebanon. It’s a contest held between the best speakers from all four countries who compete to earn a spot in the International Semi-Finals.

Up until now, I had been pretty naive. I didn’t truly grasp how big the Toastmasters fraternity is. Despite meeting online, I didn’t feel any less that I was part of something larger. The sense of missing was thankfully absent — the whole two days left me feeling positive and energised (without the fatigue of travel or socialising, may I add).

On top of the contests, there were keynote speeches by Finalists and World Champions from around the world, who had bested the stage and are now living their dreams and parting their hard-earned wisdom.

Though the connection may be hard-pressed to find at first, the art of public speaking is applicable to daily life. Here are three things I learned this weekend:

1. “Someday is not a day of the week”

This hit me. Hard.

It was a quote by Denise Brennan-Nelson that a contestant had thrown into their speech. Something that only lasted about five seconds, yet was the first thing that stuck with me. Other peoples words are their reflections and our reminders.

Public speaking is a form of storytelling — large and messy life events are neatly condensed into a five to seven-minute speech. The messages that form the conclusion are almost always things we have heard time and time again. ‘Be grateful’, ‘Have hope’, ‘Believe in yourself’…the list of cliche, overused subjects goes on. It’s almost impossible to avoid this.

But we are inherently forgetful. An Arabic word to describe human is Insaan — the root word of this being nasiya, ‘to forget’. And, being the fickle beings we are, we forget life’s most important lessons. The best way to convey lessons and make them stick is through stories, and you’ll find an abundance of them at any Toastmasters meeting.

We never know who we will impact, or how our message will help someone else. Our job is to just share any goodness we have, free of expectation. The results aren’t up to us, but they can certainly be surprising.

2. Engage with the eyes

‘Has anyone felt like this before? If you have, put your hand up!’

I would usually think, ‘If he can’t see me, why bother?’. But Keynote speaker Craig Valentine had well and truly sucked me into his speech. My hand shot straight up.

Unless you have the privilege of sitting in the first few rows of an oversized conference hall, the speaker on stage will be highly unlikely to lock eyes with you directly. Even if they do, it will be for a few seconds at best before their gaze shifts to another. But this time, his eyes were on me and me only — or, so it seemed.

Having won the 1999 World Championship of Public Speaking, Craig’s 20+ years of experience drove us through tips to improve our own speeches. One such tip highlighted the importance of talking to an audience directly, by using the ‘speak to one, look to all’ technique. A welcome side-effect, through the medium of online, was that it really felt as if he was talking to just me — all because of a webcam.

Each keynote speaker looked directly into their webcams, a practice the majority of us fail to implement in online meetings. The feeling of direct speech, of grabbing each and every audience member, was a gesture as direct as looking straight in the eyes.

This small yet effective gesture made me feel like the only person in the room (besides the literal truth of course). It was through this that I really formed a connection with the speakers and was hooked onto their message.

3. To each their own

“Everyone’s just so good!…but this just doesn’t seem like my thing.” my non-Toastmaster cousin confessed to me over the phone after I invited her to join the first day of the conference.

Whilst DTAC is a great showcase of the best of what Toastmasters has to offer, it’s not a holistic view of what the organisation propagates. It’s an end goal, not the work in progress.

The rest of us applaud the breadth of amazing speakers, as they should be. But we also forget that not everyone’s aim is to become champion on the big stage, under the beaming spotlight, to the sounds of thunderous applause. At the end of the day, we all have different aims when we join Toastmasters — these fall in line with who we are fundamentally.

Alongside this, each speaker has their own individual style. This is something I learn as I go along. When I first joined Toastmasters, I assumed being a good speaker meant being extroverted, loud, exuberant (much to the dismay of my quiet, introverted self). And whilst that can be effective for many speakers, I realise it doesn’t have to be the case for all. Not everyone can be bursts of sunshine, and not everyone can be an award-winning actor.

At the end of the day, our message just has to come across, in whatever style we choose. To take it to a larger context, messages may be better delivered in a different medium: through writing, music or art. But the benchmark for delivery is well encompassed in this quote:

“Is your message clear, compelling and consequential?”

Aditya Maheshwaran, 2015 2nd Place Winner of the World Championship of Public Speaking

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s a set way of doing something. But, as I’m still learning, the best way is to take the advice that feels in line with who you are. As someone said on the final day of the conference, ‘Live your speech’. The biggest failure, far worse than losing the trophy, is being inauthentic to ourselves.

And that was just the highlights…

Of course, there was so much more — there always is. But I’ll ponder on it and save it for another day.

In effect, Toastmasters is headlined as a place where leaders are made — and the best leaders, are the best communicators. Effective communication is the core value which encompasses the organisation in its entirety. And I have to say, I definitely learned a thing or two about the subject, probably enough to go write a speech about it…

Tremendous thanks to the entire DTAC team, and I’m excited to learn more — digitally, or in person — at subsequent conferences.

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Design. Draw. Do.

Design. Draw. Do.

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Hi! I’m Noor I make videos and write daily about art, productivity and creativity (the sketching, painting kind). https://youtube.com/c/DesignDrawDo