The proof lies in the podium pudding

Wow! My friend Andy Jerue is a terrific speaker. When asked how he became so polished, he credited his involvement with Toastmasters International.

What? Sounds like a labor union.

Nope. It’s a group devoted to helping its members improve their speaking, listening, and leadership skills.

Hmmm. I was interested, but didn’t have the time then. Thirteen years after first flirting with the idea, I finally found myself sitting at a Toastmasters meeting, wondering if they’d be a bunch of pushy salespeople. No, just real people of various speaking abilities. Nice, supportive, and skilled at constructive criticism. A safe place for self-improvement.

The Energizers Toastmasters #477 lunch club meets every Wednesday at Consumers Energy corporate headquarters in Jackson. For $60 in annual dues, I feel as if I’ve obtained the equivalent of a master’s degree in communication at my own pace.

Meetings last an hour and everyone plays a role, ranging from toastmaster, speaker, evaluator, jokemaster, timer, to wordmaster (who selects a vocabulary word we all must use at least once). There’s also the grammarian/“ah” counter, who tracks bad grammar and how many “ahs” and “ums,” we say. Ouch. Table topics allow two minutes to spontaneously answer questions. We learn to think on our feet.

The most enjoyable part of Toastmasters is watching new members go from tongue-tied to comfortable at the podium. Eventually they work their way to advanced speaking manuals based on their personal interests.

In fall of 2006, I attended a Jackson area speaking contest. The speakers were very good and gave me a new goal: to sound more like them. I practiced diligently and six months later won my first area contest with “Why I Never, Ever Wash My Car.”

Two weeks later I competed regionally in Lansing. On the way there I told Boy Kerry I was worried I might run into the “Schindler’s List Syndrome” with the judges. There were several other good movies out the year “Schindler’s List” won the Academy Award for best picture, but the judges had to go with the more serious subject matter. Kerry thought I was being a bit dramatic.

I drew the number to speak first. My dirty car speech went great, but the problem began when the other contestants started speaking. My speech was the only humorous one. No one told me this particular competition was for serious speeches. It’s not that humor was disallowed, it just wasn’t typically done by anyone. Except me. I had brought a knife to a gun fight.

The contestant who followed me took second place speaking about her Peace Corps work with refugees, some of whom had been beaten, raped, murdered, or eaten by wild animals. I froze in horror. Not at those awful things, but at the contrast between her speech content and mine. “I can’t compete with ‘eaten by wild animals,’ can I?” I whispered to Kerry.

“You’re pretty well screwed,” he assessed. The winning speech was about the speaker’s recovery from a brain tumor. Schindler’s List all over the place! They were better speakers, too. I returned home, vowing to work harder than ever at my speechcraft. And secretly hoping something really awful would happen (not quite bad enough to kill me) that I could speak about at the next contest. Flatulent footwear, cat constipation, and marrying ketchup bottles just couldn’t compete with refugee trauma and brain tumors.

Since then I’ve grown more comfortable with and wiser about what I have to offer at the podium: My own spin on life. I next compete Oct. 14 in Lansing in a humorous speech contest with “As Un-American as Humble Pie,” which you’ve already read here.

On Dec. 5, I’ll be at Tibbits Opera House sharing my stories in “Wry Toast: A Slice of Real Life.” It’s a speaking review I put together featuring six Toastmasters women from across Michigan. Think comedy club meets motivational seminar. I’m looking as forward to hearing the other speakers as I am about performing “Merit Badges for Adults” and “The Worst Case of Syphilis I Never Had” about my false positive blood test experience with the Red Cross.

Who is going to point out the absurdity of life if I don’t?

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