Early in my professional career, I left the sheltered world of academe and found myself working on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Science Fellow. Talk about culture shock….
I was plunged into strange waters–surrounded by articulate people who could give extemporaneous speeches, graciously introduce a speaker, and remain cool and collected in heated debates. They could tell just the right joke to make the audience-of-the-moment laugh. And they could do all this without even knowing much (or anything) about the subject!
These were skills I had not learned in the lecture hall or the laboratory. In academe, I learned that my professional communications should be cautious, objective, and carefully footnoted. Outside academe, a different style of communication was clearly required for success.
So, I cornered one of my mentors, a Ph.D. physicist who had worked at the State Department and was now working for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). And I asked him, “How did you learn to speak so well in public?”
He replied, “Toastmasters International. Want to attend one of my club meetings?”
I accepted his invitation. His Toastmasters International club met weekly at the Brookings Institution, and its members came from government agencies, trade associations, universities, and law firms. After attending one meeting, I realized that this organization was neither an antiquated fraternal organization, nor a club for glad-handing extroverts. In fact, this organization could provide just what I needed.
It provided a laboratory where I could learn and practice new skills. And it offered an instant peer review process. Several members gave prepared speeches at each meeting, and their fellow members all offered oral and/or written feedback. During the “Table Topics” portion of the meeting, members were called on at random to provide impromptu responses to unexpected questions.
I joined the club. Over the next few years, I gained both experience and confidence—giving prepared talks, replying off-the-cuff to difficult questions, and running a meeting. In this safe laboratory, I tried out techniques that I would never have tried on my own.
Some of my efforts bombed. I told jokes that no one understood. I used hand gestures that were wooden and awkward. I even tried speaking in different accents.
Yet, some of my efforts succeeded far beyond my expectations. I even won the club “humorous speech” contest one year! Maybe I could do public speaking after all.
Most importantly for me, I was able to do all this without my job or career being on the line. I made my mistakes in front of friendly strangers who weren’t responsible for my performance review and salary decisions.Ever since that experience, I’ve included “Join Toastmasters” on my top 10 list of career advice.
The Toastmasters International website provides an overview of the organization and can help you find a club in your area. Clubs can be found in industrial, government, and academic organizations. Corporate award winners in recent years include Pfizer, Eastman Chemical, and Procter & Gamble. Government agencies supporting Toastmasters include the Department of Energy, NASA, and EPA. On the list of educational institutions are Penn State, Alabama A&M, and MIT.
I strongly endorse Toastmasters, but don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an article and endorsement from another chemist, Erika Ebbel. She joined Toastmasters while a student at MIT. Since then, she has put her public-speaking experience to use in some interesting forums, including serving as Miss Massachusetts at the 2005 Miss America competition.
Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science Fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992.