Public speaking ranks higher than death on Americans’ fear scale, according to recent surveys. While studies like this sometimes are flawed, speaking in front of a crowd is hard for many people. Even the brave souls at Kauai Toastmasters Clubs in Lihue and Kapaa, who voluntarily speak in front of their peers on a regular basis, admit they still get nervous.
But the secret to their success isn’t about curbing that energy altogether, it’s learning how to channel those nerves elsewhere through regular practice. They are trained to focus on aspects such as maintaining eye contact with the audience, keeping track of their vocal volume and remembering to take enunciation into account.
Though she’s a pro speaker now, Donna Olivas-Kaohi was so petrified to attend her first Kauai Toastmasters Lihue Club meeting, her supervisor at the time — who recommended that it would be good for her — practically had to drag her there.
“In high school, I was a wallflower,” explains Olivas-Kaohi.
While Olivas-Kaohi was thinking of a “million and one” reasons not to go to that first session, she’s infinitely glad she did.
“It’s been the best thing I could have done,” she says.
Now, she not only is past president of the Lihue club, but also currently is director of Kauai Toastmasters District 49, Area 16, which includes the two Kauai groups, as well as three on Oahu. Moreover, she, as a county employee, recently was promoted to director of Kauai Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), something she credits to her involvement with Kauai Toastmasters, which helped her develop skills such as leadership and confidence through practicing the art of communication.
Lucy Miller, public relations vice president for the Lihue club, also credits Toast-masters for the successes she’s had in life. What makes Miller’s story so remarkable is that she’s unable to hear herself speak because of a lifelong disability. As a psychotherapist and advocate for people with disabilities, she conquered her fear of public speaking because she knew it would be beneficial to her work.
“I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner,” says Miller, who attended her first meeting 12 years ago.
Through Kauai Toastmasters, she learned to speak loudly and more clearly. She also learned the art of confidence. Before that, she would get knots in her belly before giving speeches — now, it’s second nature.
“I don’t lose sleep over it anymore,” she says.
Toastmasters is an international organization that was started on Kauai in 1978. Each club has about 20 members, a number that keeps growing. The groups meet for one hour every other week. They follow a structured schedule during meetings that usually includes about two to three presentations by volunteers, who take approximately two weeks to prepare. They focus their efforts on qualities from the Toastmasters’ manuals, such as vocal variety, organization or humor.
All new members start with “The Icebreaker,” a speech in which the presenters talk about themselves. It’s often the one most newbies feel the least confident about.
Kaci Manion, a member of the Kapaa club, remembers it as a frightening experience. She has no problem talking in small, intimate groups, but larger audiences tend to trigger anxiety.
“Bigger groups, and standing in front of them, I don’t love,” she says.
She recalls writing out her entire speech before the inaugural presentation, but since has realized it’s not the best method. She’s learned it’s much easier to remain focused and calm without having to rely on notes — one of the many skills she has acquired through Kauai Toastmasters.
Now, she’s let go of the need to recall everything and just focuses on getting the message across.
“It might be a little different every time, but you’re still hitting every note,” she says.
After each member gives three speeches, they are given different jobs, with the “ultimate” being Toastmaster of the Day — the person responsible for conducting meetings that week. And as members continue to participate, they graduate from speeches ranging four to six minutes to keynotes, which are 20-30 minutes, and eventually earn the coveted title of Distinguished Toastmaster.
But not just prepared speeches are presented at meetings. Members also can elect to participate in “Table Topics,” where they are provided with random subjects to chat about “off the cuff.”
The groups also spend time evaluating each speech, including the number of “um’s” said throughout the presentation.
“Which is always a very friendly, supportive evaluation with, perhaps, suggestions for improvement for the next speech,” says Miller. “One thing about a supportive group is that everybody’s on your side; they want to like your speech. They’re not our enemies; they’re our friends.”
Clearly, Kauai Toastmasters isn’t just about giving speeches; it’s about building relationships and learning to become an all-around better communicator.
“So, not just telling something, but also listening and hearing what someone has told us,” says Olivas-Kaohi.
The main message is that practice makes perfect. A speaker can go from a shaking, nervous wreck to poised confidence with command of an audience.
“We’ve seen people just be totally transformed, including us,” says Miller.
Overcoming the fear of public speaking, no matter where it rates on someone’s scale, is quite the accomplishment, and these ladies prove that it works wonders in all aspects of life.
Visit http://2525.toastmastersclubs.org to learn more about Kauai Toastmasters.