The nobel pursuit of confidence

Three years ago, I was more toast than Toastmaster...

Jean Oliver (left) used Toastmasters to build her confidence. She stands with friend Marguerite Gayfer after planning the Victoria Human Chain D.O.T.S. Rally for Suicide Prevention in 2011.

Three years ago, I was more toast than Toastmaster.

Completely burned out and a prisoner to anxiety and panic attacks, a chance meeting at Camosun College led to an unexpected lifeline, as though someone was saying: hang in there and we’ll show you how to open up your life and let some light in. But talk about your stage fright: ‘Hello, my name is Nervous Nelly, and I am Toast.’

We don’t get to a state of misery by accident. When I was nine, my mother entered me in a singing contest. Contest day arrived and there I was on a large stage, facing an auditorium filled to capacity. I looked out at the crowd and opened my mouth — nothing happened. All I could do was stand there, eyes blinking, feet planted on the ground. I saw one judge shake her head and bend to write something down. The next memory I have is of mom offering me ice cream. Two things came out of that miserable day: ice cream remains my favourite comfort food, and I can’t sing a note. Luckily, confidence comes in more ways than one.

My first meeting at Toastmasters was pivotal. There is a standing item on a Toastmasters agenda called Table Topics, where you get two minutes to talk on a subject without preparing ahead of time. When the meeting topics were announced, my hand shot up and I was up at the front in a flash. My body shook so hard I had to grip the podium to keep my knees from buckling. I opened my mouth and, to my horror, nothing came out. There I was again, eyes blinking, feet planted. This time, no one shifted or looked down to mark an “F” on a piece of paper. They just waited, and one or two nodded in encouragement. Then, something in me fired to life, the words flowed from me and I filled up my two minutes, then some.

It hit me: there was a formula for public speaking and all I had to do was learn it. I’ve been hooked on the pursuit of confidence ever since.

Whether you are facing a lack of confidence, an in-class presentation or have ever wanted to hold your ground through conflict, get to a Toastmasters meeting. Those zingers you always think of later will be on the tip of your talented tongue from now on.

The take home message is this: you cannot fail as a Toastmaster — you can only progress.

All you have to lose is a load of anxiety and low self-esteem. M

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