The Veteran

“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.

Don't forget to take a rest stop once in awhile. Only then will you realize how far you have come.

Don’t forget to take a rest stop once in awhile. Only then will you realize how far you have come.

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4 thoughts on “The Veteran

  1. On the day you posted this, I did my 5th CC speech. My topic was based on a blog post I’d admired (http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress/2011/05/four-ways-to-make-your-next-presentation-better/ ). So if you get stuck any time, that’s 1 way to get ideas for your speeches: Base them on other people’s writing in a topic you’re passionate about.

    Personally, I’m really not sure about people using more vocal variety, or exaggerated body language. Those are Toastmasters hallmarks that to me are like watching someone over-act – not a pleasant or worthwhile experience! So I don’t think they’re a mark of skill or achievement. I’d say they come about largely because of the pressure to provide points for improvement in evaluations.

    Someone can ALWAYS say you need more vocal variety or more exaggerated body language. So how valid a comment are those?

    As soon as I hear those terms, I pretty much switch off to what comes out of that person’s mouth next, because to me the term “vocal variety” is almost like swearing! It’s as if I’m watching TV and a long “beep” obscures some profanity – except I also lose the words following the term “vocal variety” itself!

    Sure, variety or exaggeration CAN make a speech more interesting, but if you watch a great speaker – like Clinton or Martin Luther King or whoever – how big are their gestures, and how much vocal variety do they use? They certainly don’t lie on the floor like Darren LaCroix and Ryan Avery did during their World Championship speeches!

    What’s your OWN take on vocal variety and exaggerated body language? I’d be interested to hear your opinion.

    Anyway, I really like your analogy of the CC manual just being a marker in a marathon, not the endgame. I suppose there’s never really an endgame – except for people who stay in Toastmasters so long that they stop trying to get better! (Not because there’s nothing left to improve – there’s always something to polish – but just because they stagnate or because there’s no-one of a better standard in their club to inspire them!)

    P.S. It’s amazing to realise it’s taken me about 10 months in Toastmasters to get to speech 5! I’ve decided to finish the other 5 speeches in the CC manual by the end of the year, so although that’s not quick, at least it’ll hurry me up from my rate to date! And our president-elect asked me to enter the next humorous speech contest too, which I’m keen to do. It’ll be a challenge for sure, but I think I need that.

    • Craig, thank you for such a lengthy and knowledgeable post, as always! Congratulations on your fifth CC speech and thanks for the idea about basing speeches off of reading/responding to other people’s writings.

      The vocal variety/body exaggeration continues to be a personal crux of mine. Throughout my first ten speeches my vocal variety mirrored that of your most monotone, high school teacher reading the textbook. I thought I was putting enough emphasis, but I’ve found out what you think you’re doing can be very different from what you are actually doing. I’m quite a reserved speaker, and it’s taken until my own Humorist contest for me to start getting a grasp on how much I need to exaggerate vocal variety, etc (I’ve always found it difficult).

      To me, there is a difference between telling someone to use more vocal variety/gestures and having them overact. The vocal variety comment would work (and may be needed) for the new Toastmaster whom is reading their notes in the same tone. It becomes less valid the more seasoned and more skilled speaker they become. To me, it’s a sign a Toastmaster is becoming more confident in their speaking abilities that they can start really working on putting the emphasis where they want to achieve the effect they want on the audience. It is similar to the comment for a speaker to move around more, use the stage more. I give that comment a lot, but there have been times too when I have told the speaker “not moving around as much worked for this speech.” It’s about the situation. If a speaker is supposed to give a speech from the Entertaining Speaker manual and they stood in one spot, I’d comment on it. If they did a speech designed as a business presentation, I think not moving around as much works better.

      Overacting is never good, but personally I’ve found that feedback is usually given to the reserved speakers (myself) that don’t realize the amount of exaggeration they can do before they have entered into the realm of overreacting. I feel there’s a difference between the two, and it is speech dependent. Hope I’m making sense.

      In my mind, great speakers come from all platforms. Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King did not move around the stage a lot (no portable microphone). I do think they do use vocal variety quite well. They are certainly not monotone. I feel gestures are there and are appropriate without being distracting. They spoke very well and very appropriately for their mediums.

      I feel it is difficult to compare the setting/purpose of those speeches to the Toastmasters World Championships. In that setting I feel a speaker needs to be inspiring and humorous at the same time, that is what members are there to witness. I know Darren has established himself to a comedic speaker because that is the medium he wants to be in. Ryan himself can be very humorous at times, but from hearing him speak I think he does the humorous/professional thing very well. I think that is where he wants to be as a public speaker, plus I know he does a lot of workshops for corporate clients.

      Does this make one speaker better than the other? Not necessarily in my books. All four are great speakers working in different mediums.

      On an end note, I took a ridiculously long time to finish my CC. I do highly recommend you try your hand at the Humorist Contest (perhaps I am biased there) but I think it really pushed me to my own next level.

      Keep the comments coming Craig, always great to hear from you! And how’s this for an over-reply?

      P.S. I quite liked Jock Elliot’s 2011 World Championship speech as well as Kwong Yue Yang (second place).

      • Watching the recording of my latest speech, frankly I thought how dreary I sounded! So I’d classify myself very much as a reserved speaker too. I’m sure that learning to vary my tone more will much improve my speeches.

        I agree it’s appropriate to pump up the tone and gestures used by reserved speakers, like us. I also agree there’s OFTEN a difference between vocal variety (“VV”) – or big gestures for that matter – and overacting. Sadly though, I’d say quite often the difference gets lost at TM, and both VV and body language are standard fare when an evaluator’s struggling to suggest other improvements.

        When used appropriately, VV makes the speaker sound more interesting. But sometimes TM members suggest using a huge volume range (from a stage whisper to a shout), impersonating people, or using accents. When used to such extremes, to me it often becomes overacting, which to my mind is usually cringe-worthy.

        I don’t believe there should be any difference between how a speaker talks and moves in TM and elsewhere, yet you can usually spot who’s a TM member. Why is that? For me it comes down to a degree of what I call overacting – overdone elements of their vocal, facial and/or physical performance. (I liken it to the difference between a professional actor and a ham.)

        Much of my issue with the term “VV” is that it’s open to tons of interpretation. So if an evaluator just says they’d like to hear more VV (which in my experience they fairly often do), what should the speaker take away? If on the other hand they say they’d like to hear a more varied tone, and show just what they mean by saying a phrase from the speech they’re evaluating, then everyone wins. (I realise it’s hard giving useful evaluations. I’d say it’s better not to give any points for improvement than to just rattle off a broad comment about wanting more VV or body language. Of course, the TM culture disagrees about that.)

        I just listened again to “I have a dream.” Rather than VV as such, I’d say it certainly shows passion, and MLK’s voice definitely rises to a climax as the speech goes on. Near the start though, I actually found his tone quite repetitive and “sing-songy”. So if anything, I think it would’ve actually improved his speech if he’d started with MORE variety in his tone. (Light and shade, rather than quite constant intensity from phrase to phrase.)

        Anyway, thanks for the ongoing discussion, and for hosting it!

      • Hi Craig, I apologize for the lengthy delay between comments.

        I do agree there can be a huge difference between good vocal variety/gestures and those that are overdone. A good evaluator will be able to demonstrate what they want the speaker to achieve, sometimes it is just putting a huge emphasis on a key word.

        I do like to disagree in the sense that a speaker should be the same between talking in front of TM and in front of anywhere else. I feel a good speaker would adapt their talk and his way of talk based on their audience and the topic. Does that mean I think it’s okay to “over-act” as you say? Nope, I will still cringe. To me, a good speaker is like a good actor in the sense that you have to have a good range, and you have to be able to bring different parts of that out at the appropriate times.

        Of course, that does not mean I think to be a good speaker you need to be an actor and vice versa.

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