Last week I gave my first Toastmaster speech, aptly named ‘The Icebreaker’. In fact, despite having given numerous presentations over the years, this was actually the first speech I’ve ever made.

The speech lasted for six minutes, 6.01 to be precise, but as a result of the hours of preparation before it, the detailed evaluation that followed and the numerous pieces of feedback given to me by my fellow toastmasters, I learnt a hell of a lot about being an effective speaker even from such a short time actually speaking.

For your pleasure (and my pain), I’ve embedded the video taken of said speech so you can see for yourself my battle with fear played out. It was a close call and at times fear looked likely to be the certain victor, but I stood my ground and I’m definitely taking this one as a victory for me.

Apologies for the poor quality of the video, it was taken on my camera and the sound isn’t great but hopefully you’ll get the general idea and regardless of sound quality it’s not too hard to spot the points where I forget my words and dry up completely. If you want to read the a transcript of the speech, you can find this after the ten tips. Click on the link below to view the video.

My first speech – The Icebreaker

1.    Don’t move around too much

Moving around too much can be distracting for the audience. This was bad planning on my part – I didn’t want to stand there rigid so decided to move about a bit (not giving it much more thought than that) but because of my nerves this came across as such rather than as me making ‘full use of the stage’ as I was hoping for!

2.    Never apologise

Yes I said sorry. In the middle of my speech. Halfway through a sentence I completely forgot what I wanted to say next. For me this felt like a situation that warranted an apology but I’ve been assured that should this happen in the future I must never apologise. Apologising is a clear giveaway that you’ve lost your place – and the advice is that one should simply pause instead.

3.    Watch hand clasping

This one surprised me as it didn’t show up in my rehearsals but if you watch the video you can see that I am clasping my hands all the way through it. Some might argue that this isn’t particularly bad form but Toastmasters are pretty clear that it’s a no-no. I can see why. As I watch the video back, knowing myself as I do, I can tell that the hand clasping is born out of nerves and doesn’t help to make me look relaxed.

4.    Pretend your carrying shopping bags

Related to tip number three and a little strange-sounding, this one is designed to help you keep your hands by your side. I was told that in the main this is where they should be and that you should only use your hands to gesture for meaning or emphasis.

5.    Don’t look at the floor

I hadn’t realised this until I got the feedback, but I, like many others tend to look down at the floor when trying the think of the next line of the speech. My favourite piece of feedback on the night was “Don’t look at the floor, the floor won’t save you!” The better thing to do is to try to keep your eyes on the audience, maintaining eye contact where possible.

6.    Look at the audience using a ‘Z’

When trying to use eye contact – think in a ‘z’ motion.  Start at the front or back of the audience, picking a few people out and hold their gaze for a couple of seconds before moving on, working the room in a z shape. It’s far better to look at your audience than look at the floor despite how uncomfortable this might feel to begin with. If you don’t look at all parts of the audience, including the front and back, then people won’t feel included. 

7.    Speak more slowly

When we are nervous we tend to speed our speaking up so it’s important to try to slow it down. Talking too quickly makes it difficult for the audience to keep up and is a clear indicator to them that you are nervous and desperate to get through your speech as quickly as possible.

8.    Pause more

Linked to number seven, when we are racing through a speech because of nerves, we tend not to pause between sentences. In front of a room full of people, even a short pause can feel like an eternity. However, pauses can add a lot to your speech and never feel as long to the audience as they do to you. 

9.    Don’t be a perfectionist

My evaluator spotted this about me straight away. She said that I tried to take on too much for my first speech. I knew this was the case even as I was walking back to my seat. I knew that I had tried to cram too much information into my speech, I’d also tried to use gesturing and body language in my speech even though this isn’t a requirement of the ‘Icebreaker’ and I had also learnt the speech by heart so that I wouldn’t have to use my notes. All in all I probably put a little too much pressure on myself to be perfect.

10. Connect with what you’re saying

This tip links directly to number nine. Because I had learnt the speech to the letter and could recite it no problem, I went in dreading only one thing. I knew that if I lost my place in the speech I would lose it entirely. I was almost too rehearsed and rather than connect with the story and tell it whichever way it came, I was so fixated on getting it word-perfect that losing my place threw me completely. Had I relaxed into my own story then I think it would have come across better. 

Tips aside, I probably should add that I got a lot of great feedback, including: great use of humour, good speech structure, great that I used my notes so little and some other goodies, but as that isn’t really the point of this post I thought I’d stick to the tips for improvement and the speech itself.

Small chunks, quick facts and living without limits

Mister Toastmaster, fellow toastmasters and most welcome guests

As I stand before you, I have the words of an old boyfriend ringing in my ear – “small chunks Caroline, small chunks”. According to him I wasn’t very good at getting to the point and I think it’s probably also fair to say that amongst my family and friends I’m not particularly well-known for brevity in speech. So you can imagine that fitting the subject of me into four to six minutes has been somewhat of a challenge. But I’ll give it a go.

In the spirit of small chunks, I thought I’d start by giving you ten quick facts about me.

  1. I’m terrified of speaking in public
  2. I’m obsessed with facing my fears
  3. I’m half English and half-Spanish. My mum is the English one and my Dad is Spanish.
  4. I have one brother who is 18 months younger than me whose name is Peter but I call Pudge.
  5. I grew up in the North West of England, in a town called Warrington.
  6. I love to travel and two years ago I spent 4 months travelling around Central and South America.
  7. I have a passion for personal development and growth but I hate the term self-help!
  8. I have numerous nicknames including, Caz, dude and the Bean.
  9. I love to help others and for the past ten years all of my jobs have been working for charities.
  10. And finally number ten I love nothing more than making lists, especially numbered ones.

Quick facts aside, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you what about my life has brought me to this point. Stood on this spot, giving this speech.

Number two on my ten-point list was the fact that I’m obsessed with facing my fears. Now I’m not sure where this obsession comes from but for as long as I can remember facing fears has been on the agenda for me.

When I was around 11 or 12. I had a best friend called Sam, and we lived about 6 streets apart from each other and after a day hanging out together I would always walk Sam home and then walk home by myself – the reason for this was that she was terrified of walking home alone whereas I wasn’t in the slightest bit scared.

When I was 14 my dad bought me a rape alarm as one of my Christmas presents (yep I thought it was weird too). He did this because he was terrified something bad might happen to me. But, never one to miss an opportunity, I gave the rape alarm to Sam so that I could stop walking her home every night!

As I got older my feelings about fear got stronger. I hate being scared and so when I start to feel fearful about something, I immediately feel compelled to face that fear head on and deal with it.

With this in mind, I have done some scary but wonderful things in my life. These include a bungee jump, running a marathon, climbing a live volcano, white water rafting, paragliding, mountain biking down a road nicknamed “death road”, summiting the highest peak in North Africa, travelling solo for four months and…perhaps the scariest of all…giving my first speech at my local Toastmasters Group.

Taking a sabbatical from my job in 2009 to travel represents a massive turning point for me. People say travelling changes you, but what I feel my trip did for me was remind me what was important in life. When I came back I no longer felt that working 9-5, sat at a desk was what I wanted to do with my life and I’ve spent the last few years trying to work out what exactly it is that I should do.

I knew that I wanted to do something more hands on and people focused so I started volunteering at a youth group to see if that was what I wanted to do (it isn’t – kids are really noisy), I investigated the idea of teaching (but don’t really fancy the idea of marking every night), I got all the information around being a social worker (but that didn’t quite hit the mark either) and I toyed with the idea of being a life coach.

About 6 months ago, I was reading a book called the Happiness Project in which the author talked about finding her calling in life. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if you want to know what your calling is – look at what you enjoy doing in your spare time and there you’ll find it. For her, she loved to write in her spare time and so she abandoned plans to go into Law and became a writer instead. This got me thinking and it didn’t take long for the answer to come. In my spare time, I focus on personal development – the list of activities above all came from a place of wanting to be the best that I can be.

In that moment it all came together – my passion for helping others, my passion for personal growth and my desire to face my fears all pointed to one thing. I should be a coach. A person who helps, encourages and inspires others to face their fears and achieve their dreams.

Since that point, I’ve created a blog about personal development called ‘Life is Limitless’ based on the concept that it is fear that limits us in life and if we can face those fears we can live a life that is truly limitless. I’m also currently working my way through a six-month plan to quit my 9-5 and set myself up as a coach.

So bearing all that in mind, it came as no surprise to me that when I stumbled across Toastmasters, a group designed to help people grow into better speakers and leaders, it really was no-brainer, I had to join and having done so I feel excited about sharing my fear-facing journey with all of you, my fellow toastmasters but before I finish I’d just like to share with you my favourite quote from Nelson Mandela, one of my all-time heroes:

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Thank you.

Do you have any speaking horror stories that you’d like to share or tips for improvement that you have learnt? Please share in the comments. If you haven’t already please subscribe by popping your email in the box below to help me reach my goal of doubling the number of subscribers I have.