Why I made my Toastmasters group cry
Blog 2 of 8: Table Topics is fun, but I turned it into therapy
As a member and the (former) Vice President of Education of Unity Toastmasters (a community club in Toastmasters International), I chose one of eleven Pathways — “Presentations Mastery” — as a public speaking goal. This is the blog series of eight posts I wrote in one month to complete Level 4.*
“You’d make a great gang recruiter,” a co-worker told me once.
I went into a fit of giggles over that line because I knew exactly what he was talking about. It was by no accident that he nominated me to be the Vice President of Membership at my first Toastmasters group. The minute I spied anyone who looked like they could give a good public speech, I would make a beeline to them. In that group and my second group (Unity Toastmasters), in which I became a three-time officer, I’m a pretty decent recruiter.
Who wouldn’t want to visit an organization that has 357,000 members in 143 countries and more than 16,600 clubs? Toastmasters is full of cool kids, if I do say so myself. But there was one person I invited who I wish I would’ve invited on a totally different day. To him, Toastmasters was where you went to cry. And boy, did I let loose.
In 2017, I was pursuing my Competent Communicator certificate, and the topic was “Vocal Variety.” I created a Google Slides presentation called “5 Pieces of Advice I Know for Sure.” In that slideshow, I picked five of my most influential family members: my mother, my father, my grandfather, my brother and my great-great aunt.
I knew I could get through four of the five words of wisdom, but my speech was on September 21, 2017. And speaking about my grandfather was still so fresh in my mind. He’d passed away two months before, and my heart was still shattered.
Practice or wing it?
I practiced this speech several times. That’s what most people do before they speak in public. But I never do. I’m currently the co-host of Do Not Submit Chicago (Rogers Park) and regularly share stories three or four times a month at different venues.
I wing it through public speaking events, group panels and storytelling nights. Why? I have proven many times that when I give a speech in my natural storytelling tone, it usually lands well with the crowd. When I practice a story or speech over and over again, after writing it down, it comes out awkward and forced. I’ve gotten enough evaluations to prove I’m right; I’m not just being lazy.
However, I wanted to nail this one without letting my mind zone too far in the direction of my grandfather. I completed “5 Pieces of Advice I Know for Sure” with dry eyes, and I was so proud of myself. Then we got to Table Topics, and the question was about what food do we link to a memory.
I jumped up, grinning, all set to talk about how me and my grandfather would get into territorial debates over odd quantities of almond cookies at Chi Tung. And before I got more than a few words out, my eyes teared up and my lip trembled. Of all the topics to cry about, I was crying about cookies.
Everybody, minus my confused guest, ended up either crying or fighting back tears telling a story about a loved one.
What lead to the tears during my Toastmasters speech
It wasn’t so much about the dessert as it was the memories of the regular visits that the two of us took to this restaurant almost every single time I went to his house. Birthdays. Father’s Day. Mother’s Day. Valentine’s Day. I think the two of us even went on New Year’s Day.
But the two of us would argue like kindergartners if we did not get an even amount of cookies or if one cookie was much bigger than the other. We were serious about those almond cookies!
All the time that I’d been preparing to give my official five-to-seven minute speech, I just never considered Table Topics. And when I sat down and covered my eyes, the guest I brought was too stunned to do anything. The officer sitting next to me was speechless too.
The meeting carried on. The speechless officer walked to the front to do Table Topics and got choked-up telling a food story about a close friend of his with a mental illness. Then two other members wiped away tears remembering their grandmothers and dinnertime. Everybody, minus my confused guest, ended up either crying or fighting back tears telling a story about a loved one.
That was by far my most memorable meeting with my first Toastmasters group. I felt much closer to those people who showed up for that meeting. (The secretary at the time told me I was banned from Table Topics, and that made me laugh.)
Our small group was tickled when my dry-eyed guest wondered aloud if this was a typical Toastmasters meeting. I assured him it was not. Although he never came to another meeting with me, news about that particular meeting traveled to several other coworkers on my marketing team. And every blue moon, someone would bring it up and look right at me.
I have never cried in a meeting before or after that one. But I wouldn’t do anything different that day. No matter how much practicing I did for that meeting, the tears were meant to fall. And that’s another reason why I should be allowed to just freestyle.
Should you ever decide to buy yourself lunch or dinner at Chi Tung, do yourself a favor. Enjoy an almond cookie.
Additional posts from Shamontiel’s eight-part Toastmasters blog series:
This post was originally published on January 27, 2019 on Chicago Now’s “Message from Montie” blog.
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