A Lesson on Leading & Communicating

Woman Speaking at Conference
Woman Speaking at Conference

One year ago, I joined a very "strange" group that meets in my local library.

What makes us strange?

Well, for starters, we clap... a lot. Basically, anyone who says anything in the exceptionally structured meeting gets a hearty round of applause. We also shake hands euphorically in the midst of the applause while referring to those with particular roles as Mister or Madam. But I think what really makes us strange is that we view everyone who enters the room as a leader, a public speaker, and one with much to contribute.

In our day-to-day lives we can grow numb to negativity. We see those who lead, particularly public figures, picked apart and mocked for what they say, how they say it, and even for their physical appearances. Perhaps this is what keeps most of us from stepping forward, speaking up, raising our hand, or leaning in. Despite all this, Toastmasters is a unique bubble where people are all actually rooting for one another and everyone is considered a leader--everyone. At Toastmasters you'll not just find a seat saved just for you, but also a place at the lectern, podium, or front of the room.

I began attending Toastmasters to improve my public speaking skills. As a professor, I often hide behind my computer, letting my writing communicate what I have to say. I wanted to become a better oral communicator of my ideas.

This seemed like a good fit because the mission of Toastmasters is to "empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders."

Or is it?

After a year in Toastmasters, I realize that I had it all wrong. It's not really about me--the one who attends the meetings. It's about so much more, or rather, so many more.

Don't get me wrong. I certainly have noticed improvement in my speaking at conferences, in class, or in front of any audience. The encouraging and constructive feedback I regularly receive from fellow Toastmasters has helped me know specific areas to work on to communicate more effectively.

Yet the greatest impact Toastmasters has had on me is to change how I view other people--particularly those whose lives I influence. For me, that is primarily my two children and my university students.

I think we are conditioned to put people into categories. Some are "natural leaders" while others just don't quite fit the bill. It could be because of an aspect of their personality, lack of previous experience, educational level, socio-economic status, physical appearance, or the way they speak.

I was guilty of this. But over this past year, I developed a different lens through which I view my students, whether they are pursuing a Ph.D., Master's or Bachelor's degree. I see them all as leaders and try to provide them the same supportive environment that Toastmasters has provided me to develop public speaking skills--the ability to speak with confidence, persuade with authority, influence through words, and effectively communicate with others.

Even the quietest person in the room, the one sitting in the back who rarely shares an opinion, has much to contribute -- unique ideas, diverse perspectives, and alternative ways of looking at persistent problems. Unfortunately, many of the people with the most needed perspectives learn to be silent. They internalize the notions that their opinions do not matter that much, there is nothing they can do to fix a problem, or leadership is not for them. They might not be explicitly told, but society often reinforces these notions.

Toastmasters has helped me develop a different perspective by seeing all of my students (and both children) as leaders with limitless potential. Though I might not ever be called upon to deliver a commencement address or inspire the nation through a great political speech, I will live like they will, believing that they will do far greater things than me. And if I live the next few decades viewing people through this lens, imagine what the impact will be! Indeed, I'm fairly certain, I've already met future high impact leaders in my office, classes, and home.

So, okay. (Apologies to my fellow Toastmasters for the filler words.) I will admit it. I'm in a very strange club. They applaud every time I speak. (For much longer than I deserve, too.) They sometimes refer to me as "Madam Toastmaster". (It makes me feel like the Secretary of State.) They entrust me with leading the meeting. (Even when I really have no idea what I'm doing.) They give me the greatest compliments I've ever received. (Classy? Me?) I feel six feet tall when I walk out of those meetings. (Not bad for someone who is actually only 5' 4".)

As good as this sounds, the greatest impact of Toastmasters may never be seen within my one life. Toastmasters has empowered me to shift the lens through which I view those entrusted to me. For now, that's my own children and my students. Someday, it might be junior faculty members like me at a university.

All of these hundreds of people that I will come into contact with are leaders. They just might need a little nudge and a hearty round of applause to get to where I know they can be.

That's the Toastmasters way.

(Special thanks to the Roanoke, TX Toastmasters Club)