Speaking with confidence

You can’t acquire confidence by reading about it. You become confident by doing. Before you succeed you may have to fail for a while. You need a safe place in which to practice and get constructive feedback.

It’s all very well to “say” step out of your comfort zone, but each one of us is unique. A big step for one person might be a small step for someone else. It all depends on where you’re coming from, your history, and your unique personality. If you’re just learning to swim, you wouldn’t want to enter yourself for an Olympic swimming event. If you go too far too soon you’ll become overwhelmed. At that point, you just give up.

Small steps

No one starts out an expert. An incremental approach works well. But this means you must be patient with yourself and tolerate your shortcomings. A small step gives you a chance to integrate what you’ve learned, consolidate it, and ready yourself for the next step.

After a hiatus of some 12 years, I rejoined Toastmasters International (TI), a non-profit organization devoted to developing communication and leadership skills in its membership. I am now a founding member and president of a new club, Warehouse Evening Toastmasters. We meet in a warehouse in the arts district of Oakland, California.

Our club is a place to try things out, albeit in a highly structured environment. Although the structure itself is solid, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Each meeting is different. We generally have a lot of fun.

Fear of public speaking

Besides a small minority of us older members, most people in our club are under 40. Our sister club, which meets in the morning, has an older membership. Many people attracted to us say the inability to speak in front of groups limits their professional progress. This is not surprising because business is a conversation.

Fear of public speaking is common. This is particularly a problem at work where people feel they are being judged (which they are). Our goal at Warehouse Evening Toastmasters is to maintain a respectful, fun, and supportive environment for our members. For me, it’s a great pleasure to see how our members become more confident as they gain experience. We encourage experienced members to become mentors.


We meet for exactly one hour. People take on a variety of roles. Each week a different member acts as a “toastmaster,” the person who facilitates the entire meeting.

We use a three-part structure for our meetings. First, there are prepared speeches, usually two, between five and ten minutes each. The second part of the meeting is run by a “topicsmaster,” who calls upon members (and occasionally guests if they want to participate) to speak extemporaneously for 1 to 2 minutes on a subject. The last section of the meeting is run by a “general evaluator” who calls upon assigned evaluators to give constructive feedback on the speeches heard in the first section of the meeting. Evaluators are practicing active listening skills by commenting on what the speaker did well and where there may be room for improvement.

Active listening is an invaluable skill at just about every domain of social living. Many a playground or international conflict could be avoided by a deeper understanding of what is being said, and what is being meant. It’s horribly frustrating to be misunderstood. Ultimately, not being heard leads groups to the last resort — violence.


Speaking and writing with clarity and confidence doesn’t happen by chance. It takes attention and practice. But not everyone gets this as part of their education. If you want to convince someone of just about anything you must be a good communicator. To get a raise, you should know how to make a case for it, deliver your message so you’ll get what you want.

The word “oracy” is the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech. Typically, a beginning speaker rushes through a speech and fears any silences.  A toastmaster role I haven’t yet mentioned is the “ah-counter.” This person’s job is to count the ums, ahs, likes, you-knows etc. Untrained speakers fill spaces with these dysfluencies (junk sounds). Hesitation and verbal idling only irritate your listener. Instead of using these filler words we encourage people to pause.


Some time ago I was checking out writing software and came across Scrivner. One tutorial on how to use the software was based on Monroe’s Principles of Speech written by a Perdue University professor in the 1930s.

I was intrigued and found a copy of an ex-library book from the 1940s. This method was taught to the military at one time. The book is packed with useful advice, such as how to keep the discussion from wandering, or arriving at a profitable conclusion, evaluating other people’s opinions, and techniques for securing agreement. But what most intrigued me was its similarity to the basics of communication that Toastmasters teaches.

TI has a long history. The first clubs formed back in the 1920s. Today, the organization is continually adapting to the needs of new members. But the principles of communication have changed little since the discovery of rhetoric by the ancient Greeks. While our English language is continually evolving, and style and delivery changes with fashion and technology, the underlying method of how to connect with other humans remains the same.

Each Toastmasters club has its own flavor. If you’d like to sample ours, and you find yourself near 416 26th Street in Oakland on a Tuesday night just before 6:30 PM, come on by and be our guest.

There’s always something to learn.