Maybe you’re like I used to be. I’d get a little sick to my stomach and my hands would shake at the thought of any sort of networking or talking to a group. Or even meeting a single stranger. Today, networking is one of my favorite things to do – both for fun (really!), and to grow my business.
I started to write this article about networking for shy people, but when I thought about the first step I took down the path, I realized that step is more than enough for an article. Next edition I’ll discuss the other steps I took to make networking much more enjoyable and helpful.
I can say without any hesitation that what helped me turn that corner was joining a Toastmasters club. I didn’t know much about the organization before I joined, but in 1993 both of my brothers were going to get married, and I was afraid I was going to be expected to give toasts at the weddings. So I wanted to be prepared, and I had heard of Toastmasters. I walked into the first meeting, knees shaking, afraid I was going to have to introduce myself. I did. Maybe I just said my name – I don’t remember. But what I do remember is far more important: everyone was warm and welcoming and supportive. I’m still good friends with several people who greeted me that first meeting, and in the following weeks and months.
Surprisingly, we did not learn to make toasts over champagne. What we did learn is leadership, communication, public speaking, and so much more.
I gave a few speeches, with support and encouragement from my friends. They offered constructive feedback through formal and informal evaluations. No one ever said an unkind word to or about any other member. Members were brand new speakers (like me) or extremely polished. All ages, all walks of life, and from a surprising number of different countries. We were all there for the same reasons – to learn to present ourselves better, and to help each other. Little by little, I learned to walk up to the front of the room and give a talk.
Constructive feedback is a critical part of the Toastmasters program. It benefits the speaker to hear the comments from other members. And, it benefits the person giving the feedback, possibly even more. I learned to be a much better manager from learning the Toastmasters way of giving feedback in a supportive, helpful manner.
A fun and entertaining part of the meeting is Table Topics – where we practice extemporaneous speaking. It helps us learn to think on our feet – and is usually fun and can be very funny!
Our group (a singles group) had what we called “Post Toasties” every week after our meeting. We would go to the restaurant bar to socialize. This is where I learned to carry on a casual conversation with a stranger or acquaintance. Without growing comfortable with those conversations, I don’t think I could be running a business now – certainly not one like mine, which is built on networking and word-of-mouth referrals.
If you’d like to give Toastmasters a try, check out a few clubs to see which one fits your schedule, your goals, and your personality. There are a lot of clubs – more than 200 within 25 miles of my home in Dallas! You could find a club that meets for breakfast, lunch, or in the evening. Some are limited to certain companies, or certain demographics groups. They all share the same structure, but some have very different personality. If you try one club and it doesn’t feel right, keep trying others until you find your Toastmasters home.
Thanks to my Toastmasters clubs and my friends I met there, when I give a presentation for my business, I am able to fully focus on my audience and the content – not on any nervousness. I have a long way to go to be a really polished speaker. But for now, I’m thrilled to have stepped back from the speakers’ ledge of terror.