Coming Back to Toastmasters

This originally appeared in Toastmaster magazine.

I get a little tickle in my throat, which grows to an irritation. I can’t will it to stop, so I turn away and cough into my elbow, the hygienic way we’ve been taught to cough or sneeze, even before the pandemic.

Wait, why did I do that? I’m sitting in front of a computer screen!

Since March 2020, I have been in enough virtual meetings that I shouldn’t be surprised at the persistence of such behaviors. But this is a Toastmasters meeting, and I feel like every gesture is critical.

I returned to Toastmasters in October 2020 after several years away. I have found that ingrained habits are hard to break, whether they’re simple courtesy (like coughing into your elbow) or the fundamentals of a good speech (like a strong intro). I instinctively scan the room while speaking and use expansive arm movements. I learned such habits during my 10-plus years of Toastmasters training.

The world changed in many ways in 2020, and we are all navigating the challenges. I found my return to Toastmasters to be similarly fraught—and also full of potential solutions.

Challenge #1: Pathways

Pathways was not around when I was last a member of Toastmasters. Initially, I resisted it. I was nostalgic for a manual with a glossy cover. I wanted to earn awards that contained words like “leader” and “advanced.” When I saw DL3 or PM2 (Pathways designations) next to someone’s name, I was unimpressed; it seemed to lack the authority of the old designations.

But then I managed to breeze through the first level of the Presentation Mastery path. As I advanced through the projects, I grew more impressed. It felt more comprehensive, more like a curriculum than the previous education program.

I selected Presentation Mastery as my first path very deliberately. Last year I began volunteering at a nature preserve near my home in Houston, Texas. I’m training to be a trail guide, and I want my communication to be as polished as that of the pros I watch leading hikes. Returning to Toastmasters was an obvious way to improve my communication and presentation skills.

When I earned the PM1 designation, I surprised myself with how accomplished I felt.

Each speech I gave in Level 1 related to my volunteer work. I spoke about the great horned owl in one meeting and genetically modified mosquitoes in another; I also took my club on a photographic tour of outdoor sculptures in the Birmingham, Alabama, civil rights district.

When I earned the PM1 designation (Presentation Mastery, Level 1 completion), I surprised myself with how accomplished I felt. I logged on to the Toastmasters website several times just to see the formal record of my achievement.

Challenge #2: The Small Screen

Of course, I can’t ignore the limitations of a virtual meeting. I don’t always know where on the screen to look in order to avoid the appearance of staring at my lap or at the wall beyond my desk. I don’t know how to modify hand gestures to integrate them into a virtual project. And it’s certainly a challenge to gauge the audience’s reaction to my speech.

One thing I really miss from the old days is walking to the lectern while the audience applauds. It got me ready to dive into my presentation, and no matter how well I did, the applause on the way back to my seat was comforting. There’s nothing online that can duplicate that.

A New Club

My new club, Pearland Toastmasters, helped me adapt. Until the coronavirus hit the U.S., the club met at a YMCA in Pearland, Texas, a small city south of Houston. If they were still meeting in person, it would be about a 20-minute drive for me, depending on traffic. Other clubs are closer to my home and meet at a less extreme hour than the 7 a.m. starting time, but I chose Pearland because I could see from the club’s website that it had a truly diverse membership in terms of ethnicity, culture, ability, and age.

I continue to adapt to the new environment and the new program. I have stopped resisting change. Speech by speech, role by role, I really do feel like a Toastmaster again.