Why Would a Humanities Student Join Toastmasters?
Public speeches, obligatory praise, posturing, diluted arguments, clichés, formulaic responses… “I’m not joining Toastmasters.” There are a million reasons why not to join: I’m not going into business. I don’t need sales skills. I’d rather find a mirror or a friend to listen to me practice. After all, I’m a humanist, someone who works with lofty ideas, not a corporate bureaucrat. It’s this sort of self-pride, I would argue, which we humanists suffer from the most.
The reason I joined Toastmasters was simple: when I came to Duke, I wanted to try everything. Being in an entirely new environment, I found in Blue Devil Toastmasters a friendly atmosphere to practice public speaking in my second language.
Consolidation of Speaking Skills
No one is saying that Toastmasters is the only place to practice public speaking, but it does provide abundant opportunities. I see anything and anytime in life as an opportunity for practice, whether it’s in a classroom, a hospital, or at Toastmasters. For example, when I’m teaching undergrads instrumental music of the Middle Ages, I’m also looking for ways to improve my public speaking. Or again, as a volunteer at UNC hospitals, I’ve started to perform and explain the Chinese tea ceremony. These have been very interesting opportunities for me to learn how to address and effectively communicate with new audiences. So when I go to Toastmasters twice a month, I have a regular opportunity to consolidate speaking skills and talk about my life.
Public Speaking as Creative Process
In the five to ten minutes of a Toastmasters speech, every word should be precise. Every device – humor, affect, reason – is designed and condensed for efficiency. One good thing about Toastmasters is that it focuses on public speaking skills without limiting you to fixed topics. As a musicologist, I brought the topic of music and biology to Toastmasters and, to my surprise, I learned that there were several secret music-lovers at the meeting! I tried bringing props, playing a short video, and even incorporating witticisms, and I found that much of this helped me build my repertoire for teaching and other forms of communication.
Thinking (and Speaking) on Your Feet
Three of the most challenging aspects of Toastmasters are impromptu speeches, spontaneous feedback, and dealing with unexpected situations. Public speaking is a process of self-growth and overcoming difficulties. To be a scholar in the twenty-first century, we need not only the skills to speak well, but the maturity to remain calm, agile, clear-headed, and courageous, all without becoming overconfident. Given enough practice, anyone can speak in front of any audience, can take up any subject, and this just might open up a door to the future, even if you’re a humanist like me.
Ph.D. candidate, Music