As many of you know I am an avid member of Toastmasters International. I enjoy Toastmasters because they grow communication and leadership skills. I have been a member for a almost three years now. One of my favorite parts of being a Toastmaster are the semi-annual contests. There are four major contests that are held twice a year. The Humorous Speech and Table Topics contest held in the Fall and the International Speech and Speech Evaluation contests held each Spring.
I have entered all of these contests every year and have won each of them at least once, making it as high as the Divisional Contest on three separate occasions.
I recently joined a new club and decided to enter the Humorous Speech Contest again. I had two weeks from the time I committed to prepare a humorous speech that would knock the audience off their collective feet. I brainstormed and wrote and deleted and wrote some more. In the end, I had a speech that was funny, timely, and inspirational. I was ready to again ascend the pantheon of Toastmasters.
Then came last night. Contest Night.
I confidently waited for my turn to go on stage and present my speech in front of the audience of members of my new club, guests from other clubs, friends of the other participants, and the judges. My name was called. I rose and walked with great presence to the stage, shook the hand of the Contest Chair, and turned to face the audience.
"Mr. Contest Chair, my fellow Toastmasters, and guests," I began. I opened my speech with a few jokes that got the audience laughing. Perfect, I thought. And then it happened. My mind went blank. The plug was pulled from the CPU. If you were able to look inside my brain at that moment you would have seen a Gone Fishing sign covered in cobwebs. The hamster wheel was still there but was not spinning and the poor rodent was dead.
I stood still for a few moments hoping the speech would magically pop back in my head. Nothing. I started to pace and to think of my speech. Reciting in my mind as I had done so many times rehearsing the damn thing. Still nothing. Then after an eternity of forty seconds wisps of the speech started to come back. I managed to cobble enough of the speech back together, finished, and stormed back to my seat. Pissed at myself.
"Dammit! How could I screw up! I'm better than that! These people now think I'm a joke! How can I get any credibility here? I'm going to have to leave and find another club." My inner dialog was so loud I didn't even hear the speech after me.
After the awards were handed out (hint, I didn't win) and the contest ended I tried to slink out of the room unnoticed. I didn't make it very far as a few people surrounded me. I pasted my best smile on my face and waited for the inevitable criticisms and sympathies.
What I received was not what I was expecting. There was no criticism, a few "my heart went out to you." But more than a couple of people thanked me! Thanked me! One woman came up and said that by standing up there quietly and not panicking and just waiting for the speech to return and when it did continuing on like nothing happened had gotten her over her fears of public speaking and she was going to enter the next contest. Another person told me they were inspired by the guts it took to not run off the stage when things went south.
I learned a lesson last night. It's not only when you are at you best that you can influence and inspire people. You can influence and inspire people when you are at your worst, just by the way you hold yourself.