How Toastmasters helps people with social anxiety

How Toastmasters helps people with social anxiety

This week, I graduated from a Speechcraft course. Speechcraft courses are a short, intensive version of a Toastmasters course aimed at helping participants develop their verbal communication skills in a supportive environment.

I never thought I would be able to do anything like Toastmasters. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a huge fear of speaking in public. My most traumatic experience speaking in front of people was when I burst into tears during an oral assessment in high school, and I’ve spent the next 10 years avoiding any circumstance that meant I’d have to experience this again.

How did I even end up here, as someone with social anxiety?!

In my current job, there are often times when I need to lead meetings, facilitate webinars and drum up business face-to-face.  Each of these situations cause me as much anxiety as I feel when I have to deliver presentations, which I also have to do on occasion. As a result, I’ve often talked with my supervisor about the anxiety I feel and we’ve discussed strategies to help me cope. So, when my supervisor told me she’d signed both of us up for a 6-week Toastmasters course with several other colleagues, I was filled with a sense of dread and panic. But I was also able to recognise that this was something I could benefit from.

Toastmasters as a safe place for social anxiety

What it was like…

The first week, I think we were all quite shell-shocked by the rules and regulations of a Toastmaster-run meeting. Every element of the meeting was timed, and if you went over your time limit, a horn would loudly alert you to the fact. Every time you had to speak, you had to acknowledge the chairman of the meeting, as well as your fellow speechcrafters and Toastmasters. There were rules for when to stop clapping, how to introduce each other’s speeches and how to end your speech (never say ‘thank you’!).

While this added an extra element to the anxiety I was already experiencing during that first session, the structure and organisation also actually helped my anxiety because everything was mapped out and there were no surprises.

Each week, you are sent an agenda prior to the meeting so you know what to expect, what you are responsible for, and how long you have to speak. During the first few weeks of the course, I half-expected the Toastmasters running the course to try and throw us off by changing things up, but that doesn’t seem to be how they do business, for which I am grateful.

And that’s the first surprising thing I learned about Toastmasters: everyone there is truly dedicated to helping you improve.

No one wants you to fail. So, while you’re expected to evaluate each other’s speeches and suggest ways to improve, all advice is provided in a gentle manner and with nothing but good intentions.

Maybe it’s just that we were all such beginners and they were being easy on us. But I believe the reason for this is that everyone at Toastmasters knows public speaking is scary enough. It’s hard enough to turn up each week, without the added pressure of surprise sneaky changes designed to throw you even further out of your element.

The second surprising thing about Toastmasters is that everyone is, or has been, in the same boat.

While none of my peers doing the course had social anxiety, I soon discovered we were all there for similar reasons, and we had a lot more in common than I ever would have suspected. These were people I never knew had issues with public speaking and, in fact, had admired for their confidence in the past. Not only that, but all of the Toastmasters could relate to this fear as well.

I think I expected that Toastmasters would be full of people who were egotistical and loved the sound of their own voices. And who knows, maybe there are people like that who are members of Toastmasters International. But each of the Toastmasters who coached us through the six-week course shared that they too had once been as much of a nervous wreck when they first started as we were. In fact, many of them said they were much worse, and they constantly praised us for how well we were doing.

What I learned

Over the course of six weeks, I learned a lot about my peers. We shared tears (of anxiety and of sadness), laughter, stories about our families, traumatic pasts, and very silly, made-up stories during round robins and became bonded closer outside the course as a result. When we ran into each other during the week at word, we’d ask each other ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Do you know what you’re going to talk about today?’ and reassure each other that we’d be ok. Because we’ve shared this experience, I believe I now share a bond with these colleagues that no one else can understand or relate to.

But I also learned a lot about myself. I learned that even though I had the extreme urge to ‘flight’ before and during many of these meetings, I could rely on myself to stick it out. I never thought I’d be able to do anything like Toastmasters, but I’m so proud of myself for giving it a go and for sticking it out.

In fact, I did more than stick it out. I actually learned valuable skills. While I don’t know if I’ll ever feel excited about getting up in front of people and talking, and I know I will probably always experience intense anxiety before I do, I can say with some certainty that this experience has helped me.

My recommendation

If you have social anxiety, I know it’s going to take you more than a blog post to convince you to give a Toastmasters Speechcraft course a go. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it if I didn’t have my supervisor and support system to go with me every week. But I encourage you to at least think about it. From my experience, Toastmasters are nothing but warm, welcoming and understanding, so if you want a safe space to improve confidence voicing your thoughts and speaking in front of others, this may be the best place to do it.

Interested in finding out about some of the practical tools I learned as part of the Toastmasters course I completed, and how they have helped me to better manage my speech anxiety? I’ve written about this here.

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