Facing My Fear of Public Speaking Unleashed New Possibilities

 

How Toastmasters led to personal growth and career recognition as told by Dr. Hannah Lonsdale

Imagine this…

You’ve been invited to speak about your cutting-edge research at an important conference. It’s a huge opportunity. You spend weeks thinking about what you’re going to say and preparing yourself. Its finally time to speak. You hop up onto the stage, stand behind the podium and peer into the audience of 200 expectant faces. There are several prominent people in your field out there. One has his arms folded across his chest, looking skeptical.

You take a deep breath to begin, but the words come out in a shaky wobble. Your throat tightens. Beads of sweat form under the hot lights. You place your note cards onto the podium so that you can grip something solid with your shaking hands. Then the note cards slide slowly down the angled surface and become jumbled. The faces of the audience now display degrees of sympathy, frustration, or boredom. You limp through your material feeling that you will die of embarrassment and apologizing profusely. As you step down from the stage you wish with all of your heart that the ground will swallow you whole.

Unfortunately for me, this wasn’t just a bad dream where I could wake up, have a nice cup of tea and get on with my day. That is what happened the last time I spoke in public before I joined Toastmasters.

I moved to the USA from the UK in March 2019, to take on my first full-time academic research position at John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. When I first arrived, I didn’t know a single person and didn’t seem to be able to speak the language–American English is surprisingly different to British English.

Several months after my conference trauma, I nervously went to my first Toastmasters meeting on the recommendation of a co-worker. I had no idea what to expect. Happily, everyone was very welcoming, and the atmosphere was relaxed and informal. After several members confidently deliver polished speeches, the Table Topics master asked if I would like to take a turn at speaking. After a little encouragement I agreed and was given a question. I took a deep breath. There was the familiar tightening in my throat, and the feeling that everyone would think I was awful at this and…I burst into tears! How could I ever do this? Perhaps I could somehow just avoid public speaking altogether, even though as a researcher I needed to present my work at conferences. No, I couldn’t avoid it. I’d just have to try to improve. Even a tiny bit better would be fine, just enough to be coherent.

So, I kept coming back to the meetings. Week after week I would volunteer for Invocation or Jokemaster- roles that only required me to speak for thirty seconds or so. I’d take Table Topics when someone insisted, stuttering through a few sentences peppered with ums and ers and ahs. I remember the huge feeling of achievement when after a couple of months, I made it to the sixty second minimum. For my first Icebreaker speech, I put lots of photos into a PowerPoint presentation in the hope that it would take some of the audience’s attention off me and what I was saying.

Along my journey, I found unexpected things at Toastmasters. My fellow members unknowingly taught me a great deal about what it is to be American, and how people in many different professions and stages of life experienced their culture. Although I had joined to improve my ability to deliver a speech, I found that the impromptu speaking practice of Table Topics is perhaps of even greater value. I could speak better during conversations, in business meetings and even on dates. My confidence grew as I could better get ideas from my brain to come out of my mouth as words and coherent sentences.

I met Hunter in October 2019. He lived in Pittsburgh, so for months we mostly got to know each other on Skype. Then, of course, COVID-19 came along and turned everything on its head. Hunter was able to work remotely, so we decided to live together in Florida, and it was then the rest of the outside world who we needed to talk with on Skype. My weekly Toastmasters meeting also went virtual and we all began to develop our Zoom presentation skills. This felt less intimidating than standing on stage in a room full of people. My speaking confidence grew a little more. I delivered an online teaching session for about 30 people at my hospital. I presented some work at a couple of small virtual conferences. The ground did not swallow me whole and I definitely did not die!

I decided to apply for a moonshot- to present a virtual session at the biggest international conference in my specialty of Anesthesiology. Why not? They’ll pretty much definitely say no…except they said yes. They invited me to speak for 40 minutes on my research in Artificial Intelligence, followed by a Q&A session. If I told you I wasn’t nervous, I’d be lying. If I told you that I’m confident that I’ll deliver a perfectly composed and polished performance, I would also be lying. But I believe that I can do it–and not die.

Hunter and I are planning our wedding ceremony for the fall. Amongst the after-dinner speeches, there will definitely be one from the bride.

 

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