Imagine feeling so nervous in a social situation that you are paralysed. You cannot think of what to say and when. This was me when I first came to Norwich Speakers Club in 2016. I was the most unlikely person to have put themselves forward for public speaking. I had long struggled with low self-esteem and self-confidence. In more recent years, this was also complicated by an anxiety disorder that made getting through the day at times an ordeal.
I graduated from university a year earlier. Always having been an introvert, I found it difficult being away from my friends and family in an unfamiliar environment. I often struggled to make conversation outside of my immediate areas of interest, which were pretty much limited to history, politics and science fiction! This in addition to the awkwardness I felt around others was a major barrier to forming new relationships. Apart from my attendance of lectures and seminars, I had mainly led a secluded lifestyle where I buried myself in assignments and exam preparation in pursuit of good grades.
When I went out into the world of work, my social anxiety was a barrier to establishing relationships with colleagues and interacting with customers. Another factor that led me to Norwich Speakers Club was my ongoing search for a new job in an increasingly competitive market. I was a clever student but had neither the self-belief nor the technique to make an effective impression in interviews and presentations.
My journey with Norwich Speakers started in 2016. At the time I was doing a lot of self-help work for my anxiety. I one day stumbled on a post on an online forum by an American who claimed that public speaking helped him to develop social skills and personal confidence. He mentioned that there was a safe and encouraging environment where you could develop such skills in Toastmasters. With the help of my chum google, I was delighted to discover that there was one in Norwich. I was so inspired by his story that I felt that I had nothing to lose by attending one of the meetings. Little did I realise that this would turn out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
It was the start of a demanding but truly transformational journey. When I started attending the club, my social anxiety was debilitating. It was immensely frightening for me to go into a room full of strangers, and especially because they exhibited confidence to speak in front of an audience. For a solid year, even the idea of coming to these meetings created absolute terror. It took me a while to build up my confidence to engage with the meetings. I found it difficult to even communicate a sentence at first. Piece by piece, I built up my confidence to engage more and more with the club, volunteering myself for different roles. It helped tremendously that my fellow club members were so kind, lovely and friendly. It wasn't until a year into my membership that I did my Icebreaker. In Toastmasters this is the very first prepared speech that a member performs, formally introducing themselves to the club. I was so nervous that I performed it very quickly. Not many people could understand what I was saying! It was an achievement that I nevertheless remain immensely proud of because I knew of the effort that it took for me to get there.
It wasn't plain sailing from there, but, by doing my first ever speech, I had at least proved to myself that I was capable of speaking in front of an audience. I was delighted to discover that, despite my fears telling me it would be the case, I wasn't ridiculed! Not a single rotten fruit had been thrown at me that night! The powerful boost I had received from confronting my fears was a high that I wanted more and more of. Overcoming the first hurdle gave me the momentum to keep on going. Although the fear of rejection has never completely left me, it becomes a less daunting obstacle the more I take to the podium. I scheduled my second speech a few months later and committed myself to a regular speaking slot there on afterwards. I put in a hell of a lot of work but I gradually found myself being able to say more and more and be more expressive of myself. Along with this came increased social confidence as I was able to build on relationships with other club members.
Since joining Norwich Speakers, I have done many table topics which is a form of improvised speaking we do at the club. I have performed 12 prepared speeches. I have also been awarded the competent communicator qualification in recognition of my speaking ability. In what was another enormous milestone, I entered my first speech contests last year where I came second in both in the humorous speech and Table Topics. The difference between now and when I first started quite frankly is night and day. However, there were some real lows over the past few years during which I was tempted by the belief that I couldn't do it. Over time, I proved to myself that I could do what seemed impossible.
I have gained so much from my involvement with Norwich Speakers. The practice of speaking in public has benefited many areas of my life. I think it would be fair to say that I am almost a completely different person now compared to when I first joined the club around three and a half years ago.
It has allowed me to excel at interviews and I now work for two museums in a role that I enjoy. My role revolves around giving people personalised and effective customer service. As part of this, I exercise strong communication skills in educating people about local history and by engaging visitors with the kind of small talk that I used to hate doing. The practice of public speaking has also given me the confidence to do tours at work. One of my favourites is of the battlements of the Norwich Castle Museum. I could never have imagined that I would have been able to do this prior to becoming a member of Norwich Speakers. I am now more confident, outgoing and less reserved. I find social situations significantly less daunting than I used to and I now have an active social life. One of the biggest and probably unexpected blessings that I have gained from Norwich Speakers is the friendships that I have made from the club. My fellow club members have been very supportive every step of the way. I have learnt a lot from our diverse membership, some of which have become my mentors.
I am convinced from my own journey that anyone can learn to become a competent public speaker if they are willing to work at it.While it hasn't been the silver bullet to solve all of my problems, my mental health has significantly improved as a result of my involvement with Norwich Speakers. It has had a positive impact on so many aspects of my life to the extent that I can't imagine it without the club. The last 3 and a half years with the club have been momentous and I am even more excited about where I have yet to go. It poses the question, how could public speaking transform your life?
Lewis Platten has been a member of Norwich Speakers Club (affiliated to Toastmasters International) for nearly six years and regularly attends meetings in order to continue developing his own speaking skills but also contributes towards helping others progress towards achieving their goals. Thanks for there great article Lewis, all the best Russell Eden VP Education 2020-2021