“How long does it take to become a speaker with the same skill level as you guys?”
That was a question posed to me by one of the newest members of my club, referencing all the longer standing members, including myself. Wait, she lumped me into the same category as all the pros in our club? (That can’t be right.) I heard somewhere that once you have been in Toastmasters for 3 to 4 years, you are considered a veteran. This summer will wrap up my fourth year as a Toastmaster (time flies), yet I’m not feeling like the veteran or the pro others seem to think I am.
I didn’t know how to answer her question. In truth, everyone is different; how fast you learn may be related to how fast you complete the speeches in each manual. I mumbled something about taking at least a year (I think that is the average time it takes to complete all ten speeches in the Competent Communicator manual), and achieving your CC is just the tip of the iceberg. My own journey took four years and one Humorist Contest before I reached my current level, and I know I still have a very long way to go.
Why does one join Toastmasters? Do you remember why you joined? The answers I have received stretch far and wide, from the ever-common “I need to get over my fear of public speaking” (me) to “someone else made me go” (also me). Once you are a part of the group, you are faced with the mountain that is all the speech manuals and possible leadership roles/roads available to you. For my part, I still remember sitting in on my very first Toastmasters’ meeting, listening to everyone and resigning myself to the fact I will NEVER be as good of a speaker as any of them.
What did I do as a new member? I attacked my first few speeches with gusto. I did my first speech, practiced a thousand hours, and survived (hey, I can do this!) A couple more speeches went by (hey, I think my legs aren’t made of jelly anymore), looked at the speeches I had yet to complete, and I ran out of ideas, motivation, and steam. I wanted to get my CC, I wanted to get the two free Advanced Manuals upon completion, but I felt like I had already used up all my good ideas for a speech. I was slogging through the latter half of the manual, feeling like I was knee-high in a giant mud pit. I hate to admit it, but I felt like I was plateauing as a speaker.
That’s what I have seen in many members in my few short years in becoming “The Veteran.” Members join eager to improve their public speaking. They do a few speeches, improve immensely from where they were when they first started, and then they lose steam. Either they have reached that plateau (like myself) or they feel like they are doing well as a speaker and don’t need to continue with Toastmasters. I heard a statistic that 2/3 of Toastmaster members never achieve their CC. It’s a sobering thought and I wish I had a better idea of what I could do to help those 2/3.
I can only speak from my personal experiences. By the time I completed my tenth speech, I felt like I was just putting one foot in front of the other. The huge leaps/bounds of improvements I had felt earlier on in my journey were now reduced to miniscule achievements. The root of my evaluations were always the same: exaggerate, increase your presence, and increase your vocal variety. No matter what I did, I could not change things. It took entering the contest (feeling the subtle pressure from fellow competitors) that I stepped up, put my heart into working hard again, and succeeded.
Doing your tenth speech and achieving your CC is not the endgame but rather a marker in a marathon. It will not make you a great speaker, but it will put you a giant leap ahead of the speaker you were when you first signed up as a Toastmaster. Think of your early memories; weren’t there always one, two (or ten) members that all seemed like speaking champions? Didn’t they make giving a speech look so easy? Consider how long they were a part of Toastmasters, giving speeches as often as they could, how much work they’ve put into honing their craft. (I’m not saying you won’t or shouldn’t put in the same amount of work either, I’m just saying they started earlier).
It will be hard work. I’d be willing to bet at times you will feel like your progress is one miniscule step in front of the other. Don’t worry about what the scenery will be like twenty thousand steps from now, it will seem like an impossible journey. If things feel sluggish, just focus on putting that one miniscule step in front of the other. Someday you will look back and realize you have just taken those twenty thousand steps forward, and hey, you’ve survived.