To quote from the Toastmasters Manual: “Smedley saw a need for the men in the community to learn how to speak, conduct meetings, plan programs... Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking


Photo: Filipino-NZ Toastmasters Club in action

myrna webAUCKLAND – Public speaking was never of any concern to me until I migrated to Sydney, Australia two decades ago. A new migrant in a new country interfacing with absolute strangers. Getting to grips with their weird accents and the unfamiliar social and workplace norms. Add a phobia to this cocktail of handicaps for a new settler – the fear of public speaking.

It became abundantly clear to me that to land a good job or even any job I had to be able to communicate effortlessly with the mainly Aussie client base and colleagues at the workplace. Even looking at it from the social level, in order to accelarate the settlement process you are obliged to step out of the comfort zone of family and a small kababayan network to interact with your Aussie neighbours. As migrants we need to make some positive overtures to integrate with the people who came first. It is the only way to address every new migrant’s burden – managing the seemingly elusive acculturalization process.

It was back to the drawing board for me. I had to rethink my naively conceived settlement strategy – i.e. that I could sail into any job armed with my lopsided CV featuring a wealth of overseas experience and zero Aussie experience. And the assumption that Aussies would roll out a red carpet welcome for this migrant with the ‘mostest’.

It was a no brainer. It was time for Plan B to unravel. I joined the Smooth Speech Toastmasters Club in Sydney (if I were to fast forward to 2015 I would have joined the Yum Chat Toastmasters – an Asian Toastmasters Club). My Club was one of hundreds of branches of an international organization that was lauched in the United States in 1905 by one Ralph Smedley, a director of education at the YMCA, Bloomington, Illinois (see article insert below).

My group met once a week after work at a local club. I was assured by mates that this program would make the butterflies that swirl in my stomach when I get up to speak fly in formation.

To achieve this we were given a handbook with a whole lot of speaking assignments and we were mentored at every stage. Top on the list of things to learn: Delivering the icebreaker speech (speaking about yourself). Learning how to introduce the next speaker. Participating in table topics. Making a humourous speech. And even more speeches.

Each week my confidence level was rising. And it reached the stage where I was looking forward to each new challenge the group would throw at me. What’s more, I was no longer dreading when it was my turn to speak. The sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth and the feeling of nausea and dizziness was like a bad dream that had lost its potency. Here came the new me – totally focused on improving the style and content of my speech rather than worrying about the what ifs.

One can even get pretty gung ho after a while. At one point I felt that it was time to tackle some challenging speech situations in the real world. I thought a popular Aussie talk-back radio program would test my mettle. That day the topic was: how can migrants act as a conduit in facilitating trade relations with Asia. After what seemed like an eternity hanging on to the receiver I was finally on air. I chatted effortlessly with the host; who seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. I taped the conversation, of course, to present at my Toastmasters Club.

Needless to say the fear of public speaking, at least on-air and at our meetings, abated. The next challenge was to arrange a live interview on a radio station’s community self-help program to promote our Toastmasters Group. It went well and I got a pat on the back from the group for my efforts.

Even after I relocated to New Zealand I kept seeking challenging situations to test my skills; just in case I back-tracked. Over the years there were more radio and TV interviews and I can say that it gets easier as time goes on. I’ve been interviewed on Radio New Zealand’s Asian Radio program and NewsTalk ZB a couple of times about the Migrant Expo that I organise. I’ve had an interview on a Maori radio station about the relationships between Maori and migrants. Followed by my first ever television interview on Mirror, an ethnic TV program. Perhaps the feather in the cap was an interview last year on Al Jazeera where I commented on the media coverage of Typhoon Haiyan.

On another front I worked as a Course Leader of the Orientation Seminars for groups of 15-20 migrants. I developed and presented this program for three years.

I now realise that there are a hierarchy of fears to be confronted in public speaking situations. Privately I still had to face demons in one more area of public speaking. You see I get no joy when it comes to standing up and asking questions at public meetings or when interviewing VIPs at press conferences. I guess I saved this challenge for last because the butterflies do run amok every time I envisage these situations.

Over the past three years I’ve been working specifically on this area. What I found was that it gets better with practice. I have the public speaking skills; I just had to sublimate the unwarranted fear of letting people hear my voice.

These days press conferences with the Mayor are a breeze – sometimes I ask too many questions. During the recent local and national elections I made it a point to attend as many public meetings as I could to meet the candidates and ask them questions. Sometimes I have to pull back just to give others a go.

In conclusion. The word of the evening is ‘phobia’. By the way, I was supposed to only deliver an Ice Breaker Speech. How did I become the ‘Meeting Speaker’?

I await your evaluations:

To quote from the Toastmasters Manual:
“Smedley saw a need for the men in the community to learn how to speak, conduct meetings, plan programs and work on committees and he wanted to help them.

“Smedley decided to organize a club where they could learn these skills in a social environment and the men responded well to the concept. He named the group the Toastmasters Club; ‘toastmaster’ was a popular term that referred to a person who gave toasts at banquets and other occasions.

“Much like Toastmasters meetings today, the participants took turns leading and speaking at each meeting. Smedley and the older, more experienced men evaluated short speeches, while the younger men were invited to join in the evaluations.”

Mel Fernandez