I've concluded that our ability to communicate authentically with other people is the most important life skill that we can possess. We often spend a great deal of our education learning how to analyse, think, solve problems, and understand how things work; but tend to downplay the importance of subjects that teach us how to communicate. The ability to communicate, inspire and influence other people is also a key leadership skill. Whether in business, relationships, or just in our personal lives, our ability to communicate our thoughts, feelings and ideas to other people is absolutely crucial to our success... and ultimately our happiness.
For the past couple of years, I've been improving my communication and leadership skills as a member of Chatswood Communicators Toastmasters club. I have to admit that I wasn't really thinking of becoming a world-class communicator when I first came across Toastmasters. In fact, I was dragged along to my first club meeting by a very passionate Toastmaster friend of mine I met at a Ceroc dance class, who wanted me to partner her for a dance demonstration. At the time, I thought "Hmm... this looks like fun. But I'd rather be dancing!". Two years later suffering from chronic fatigue, I had to give up dancing and decided that rather than sitting around at home feeling miserable, I may as well be out at Toastmasters learning how to communicate better with other people.
Effective communication wasn't a big part of the family I grew up in. In fact, it's fair to say that my parents demonstrated the importance of good communication by showing just how badly things can go when you don't have it. They would talk cross-purposes without actually connecting or revealing anything personal about themselves.
Powerful communicators tell stories laden with their true emotions, because this connects them with their audience. If we didn't grow up with this being role-modeled for us naturally, it's something we need to learn for ourselves. The thing I like about Toastmasters is that it offers a safe , mutually supportive environment to practise the art of communicating our message with other people. It's a training ground where I can experiment with different ideas, and get constructive feedback on them before heading out into the "real world" to spin my stories in front of potential clients, friends, business partners, or wherever I want to speak.
My club has people from diverse backgrounds all of whom are there for their own reasons. Some want to improve their general self-confidence, some need extra training for their current or future job roles, and others want to learn how to run seminars promoting their product or business. Toastmasters as a whole tends to attract people who are interested in self-development and are often quite entrepreneurial, which makes for an interesting group of people to hang around with.
Being an impatient kind of guy, once I decided I wanted to get into the whole public speaking thing I wanted to get kick-started as quickly as I could. So I took the SpeechCraft introductory public speaking course run by the club. My previous experience in community theatre definitely helped me here, and I found it was a fairly natural transition from telling someone else's scripted story on stage, to telling stories of my own. After having a lot of fun at SpeechCraft, I joined the club so I could have a regular forum to practise in and continue to develop my skills. Later down the track I decided to take the plunge and lead the SpeechCraft course myself, which was also a great experience. I definitely learned a lot more about public speaking when I started teaching it to other people.
There are Toastmasters clubs literally all over the world, and you can find one near you on the Toastmasters International Website. The clubs are deliberately kept to a relatively small and manageable size of around 20 regular members at each meeting, so that the environment isn't intimidating for newcomers. So many clubs means a lot of administrative support is required to keep the whole organisation going, which is where the leadership training side of things comes in. Keeping a club of any sort running involves a leadership team, and a large organisation like Toastmasters needs leaders at all of the many levels in it's hierarchy. During the 2009/10 financial year I became President of my club, which was an excellent opportunity to get more involved, practise some leadership skills and network more widely with others in the organisation.
To keep people on their game, Toastmasters also runs a number of speech competitions for members, the most prestigious being the International Speech Contest, the winner of which gets crowned the World Champion of Public Speaking. These guys are typically professional speakers who I find completely inspiring. One day I want to up there myself, telling my stories to the world.
If you're recognised the value of communication skills in your work, business or just life generally, I recommend checking out Toastmasters. There you'll find a like-minded group of people with tremendous experience to learn from. If you're particularly time-poor or have an immediate need like a wedding speech or a one-off business presentation to do, give SpeechCraft a go. Or if you're committed to getting the most out of life by working on your communication skills longer term, find a club near you and join up.