I imagine some people feel similar when I say I love writing or, even more so, enjoy public speaking.
Some people clamor for an audience, while others downright fear it. According to the 2015 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, public speaking ranks as the 2nd highest reported “personal anxiety” fear, behind reptiles (snakes — I get it) and just ahead of heights.
And it’s a hard one to avoid. Public speaking and outreach have been a major part of my careers, both in public relations and currently in higher education. I always feel an energy surge when presenting. While I can’t speak from anything resembling experience, I imagine it’s similar to a runner’s high.
This doesn’t mean I don’t get nervous (because I do, every time) or that I’m not guilty of many public speaking faux pas: stumbling over my words, rambling, cracking a joke that falls flat (yet laughing nervously at it myself) and lacing the talk with “um” and “so.”
Despite these deficiencies, I still consider speaking in front of a crowd (and I am loosely defining a crowd) a professional strength and interest of mine. And I am a big believer in nurturing your strengths – as opposed to spending all of your time trying to fix your shortcomings – in order to find fulfillment at work.
The truth is that I am never going to get a job that requires extensive knowledge of statistical models because I would hate that job, while also being profoundly incompetent at it. I am most successful at work when I feel I am using and contributing my strengths and interests to accomplish a goal. There is theory and stuff behind this too.
So a couple of months ago I decided to get to work on my strengths.
In addition to my online writing class, I took the plunge into something I had thought about doing for years and joined Toastmasters International. The idea was even rolling around in my brain back in February 2011 when I pondered what my keynote speech would be on my former blog*. The mission of Toastmasters is to “empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.” It’s a lofty goal, but after only a month, I can see why it works.
Toastmasters members build communication and leadership skills by preparing speeches, accepting and giving feedback, answering “off the cuff” questions to practice thinking on your toes, and participating actively in weekly meetings through various roles and responsibilities.
People join something like Toastmasters for a myriad of reasons. Some may be strongly encouraged (read: required) to do so as part of their job. My reason has been to take what I consider a strength and put it to the test. Sure I can present confidently about interview tips for college students or how to build a resume. But what about when I am standing in front of a room, no PowerPoint as a crutch, and I have 5-7 minutes to meet certain communication objectives? Totally different.
Last week I completed my first prepared speech, the Icebreaker. The objective of the speech is to tell the club members a little about yourself and also give them an introduction to your presentation skills. Despite the supportive atmosphere of the club, the butterflies were in overdrive.
I spoke slowly and cracked a joke or two where people laughed (I’m telling you, it’s a VERY supportive crowd). I stayed within the appointed time frame. I also “ummed” a few times, stumbled over some words, and left out some of the self-proclaimed amazing points I was going to make. But I did it!
I’m not lying, for the rest of the day, I felt like I could take on the world. The endorphins were pumping and I knew there was a reason this goal had nagged at me for years. I have a long way to go before I earn my Competent Communicator certification, but I’m anxious to see how developing this strength will allow me to find even more satisfaction at work… and beyond.
To be clear, I do not believe our weaknesses should be ignored. Many people join Toastmasters, for example, because they realize they need to develop their public speaking skills to advance in their job or succeed at new responsibilities. We can’t be blind to our areas of improvement and we should aim for a well-rounded set of skills and knowledge.
But I also encourage people to find those competencies that energize and ignite them. And then don’t allow yourself to become complacent. Keep nurturing and developing them. Raise a glass to your unique strengths and toast the master you are becoming.
*I find it funny that almost five years ago I was writing about not understanding cloud computing because, really, I still don’t understand how it’s any different from a server.