Some people just seem to be able to stand up and talk. Whatever the subject, no matter who they're addressing, or how much notice they have been given, they can give an effortless presentation. Impromptu public speaking and answering questions off the cuff after a presentation or at an interview were things that bothered me. My mind would go blank. But, with a scientific career ahead of me, I knew that this was something I was going to have to work on.
I heard about Toastmasters International  when I attended a course on interview and job seeking skills at the end of my PhD. The woman running the course explained that membership helps you develop public speaking skills, both for prepared talks and impromptu presentations. She said that members practise these skills in a safe, comfortable, and friendly environment, gaining confidence all the time. Toastmasters sounded like just the place for me to conquer my consternation. So I found out about my nearest club and went along. I enjoyed it immensely from the start, both speaking and also listening to other members.
Meetings have a structured, businesslike format but are relaxed and friendly. Each club is different, but most meet weekly or fortnightly for an hour or two. The club president opens proceedings and discusses business before the evening's 'Toastmaster' chairs the meeting. The meeting is divided into two halves: impromptu talks in the first half and then prepared speeches in the second. Throughout the evening, members take on various roles which rotate each meeting, enabling everyone to practise skills such as chairing a meeting or evaluating another's performance. These roles include the 'Timer' who records times for speeches and evaluations--timing is an important part of delivering any speech or chairing a meeting--and the 'Ah' counter who records any major stumblings or distracting mannerisms. A 'Wordmaster' introduces a word to increase our vocabulary and the 'Invocator' offers an inspiring or thoughtful message. Finally, the role of the 'Jokemaster' enables humourous skills to be practised.
In the impromptu speaking session, the 'Table Topics Master' asks members to talk on a given subject for 1 to 2 minutes. This is great for improving members' ability to think on their feet and is assessed by the 'Table Topics Evaluator'. Feedback in the form of evaluations from other members is a central part of learning in Toastmasters. Evaluators comment on how they felt a speech went, highlighting features which they thought were effective and good but also indicating areas which need further improvement, providing helpful advice. The framework for the prepared speeches given in the second half of the meeting comes from the Toastmasters' manuals which describe which aspect of communication is to be concentrated on. Speakers choose their own topic. These are evaluated privately by every member, but also publicly by the 'Speech Evaluator'. The initial manual of 10 speeches builds up general presentation skills and once completed a member becomes a 'Competent Toastmaster' and can work from advanced manuals to concentrate on different styles of presentations. The speeches from the first manual are mostly for 5 to 7 minutes, but they can be longer when working from advanced manuals. How frequently you give one of these talks is pretty much up to you.
In this supportive environment I have practised a range of presentation skills, from body language, to vocal variety, prop usage, and persuasive and inspiring skills. Through the impromptu table topics I have learnt not to panic and be put off by questions, but to relax, take my time, and think laterally. I have also gained confidence in general communication skills and in addressing meetings and have developed valuable leadership skills. Prior to going to Toastmasters I never thought that I had leadership qualities, but now I'm president of the Glasgow Club .
I have learnt more about myself and discovered that I enjoy using skills that I hardly knew I had. To my surprise, I enjoy running the club and organising the meetings. I get a buzz from standing up and addressing the meeting, and have really enjoyed preparing and delivering educational sessions. I am now more aware of the skills and attributes I want to use in my ideal job. I have the confidence to look at a wider range of employment and managerial roles than I'd considered before. Interviews and being put on the spot are no longer such concerns as I have confidence in my ability to express myself and not become completely floored by awkward questions.
It is amazing how members improve. Some who had trouble standing up to introduce themselves at their first meeting now deliver great speeches using body language, vocal variety, and a number of other presentation skills. Toastmasters can help everyone develop and improve the skills and confidence needed to express themselves effectively in any situation and build communication and leadership skills. Learning is at everyone's own pace, through practice but importantly through the feedback given by the Evaluators. One's listening and observational skills are developed through the Evaluator role. Being part of the global Toastmasters International organisation also means that you will receive a monthly magazine full of useful tips and information. You will have access to a range of learning and teaching material and can compete in regional, national, or international competitions if you feel this is your slant. So whatever your reasons for going, be it gaining extra experience or facing up to those fears, there is no doubt that you will benefit from this positive step.