Every other week there seem to be photos of a smiling row of Toastmasters in the Qatar papers, but what do they actually do? Perfect breakfast making techniques? Say ‘cheers’ in a multitude of languages? The reality is rather more interesting and considerably more useful, which also probably explains why there are 25 Toastmaster clubs in Qatar: They get together to practice their public speaking skills.
If just the thought of standing up and talking to a roomful of people has you breaking out in a cold sweat and nearly losing your lunch, then this will either be your worst nightmare or it could be the making of you. The fear of public speaking – it’s actually called ‘glossophobia’ – is hugely common, but the trouble is, most of us are forced to do it at some time in our lives, whether making a presentation at work, being interviewed by a panel or giving a speech at a friend’s wedding.
Hari Raghavan, an active member of Doha Toastmasters for nine years, and last year’s president, is positively evangelical about the joys and rewards of public speaking. He recalled a friend who was so shy he could barely give his name without breaking into a stammering sweat. ‘It took me five years to persuade him to come. I finally got him to a meeting. We told him he’d have to do a short table topic talk and he nearly ran away. . . now he has been member for two years and recently addressed a meeting of 400 people – confidently,’ says Hari.
The organisation was started in the United States in 1924 by Ralph C Smedley, to help young people get better at speaking in front of a group. The idea caught on and there are now more than 12,500 clubs around the world. Ralph created his ‘10 Lessons in Public Speaking’ back in 1928 and Toastmasters today still work through a 10-stage series of speaking projects with a mentor in the group.
Your first task is to talk about yourself for about five minutes – without droning on like the ultimate party bore. But, even if you are deadly dull and shaking like a leaf, the other toastmasters promise to be kind and constructive. ‘There’s a lot of camaraderie, people are always willing to help you, everybody welcomes you with a smile on their face. Also, you get a lot of ideas – people from different walks of life and different nationalities come here,’ says Hari.
Members join for all sorts of reasons – professional, social, the love of telling a good story. Hari joined because he knew he could do better at work: ‘My problem was that I couldn’t talk in front of people, I had something that was holding me back. I am an advisor to a sheikh and I had to present him with my arguments. Also, I was absentminded, during meetings my mind would wander and I was not focused. Now the moment I want to be focused I can be.’ As you work through the 10 speaking projects you work on techniques like gestures, voice modulation and eye contact. So if you stuff your hands in your pockets and gaze at your shoes, you’ll get tips on how to present yourself better. ‘I had a very bad habit of clasping my hands behind my back, I didn’t know what to do with them,’ says Hari.
The meetings often have fairly lively games too, like the Table Topic that nearly had Hari’s friend running for the hills. You’re chosen at random and given a subject to talk on for one minute, with 20 seconds to prepare it. So, you could have to say why you love Doha traffic jams; suggest how Tom Cruise would make a great shoeshine boy or find 10 new uses for a wooden spoon. It might sound odd, but it sure gets you thinking on your feet.
But don’t plan on discussing Obama’s campaign, Catholicism or gay rights because talking about sex, religion and politics is always out of bounds at Toastmaster clubs. As well as improving your public speaking, Toastmasters give leadership practice – with people taking turns on the committee. ‘You have to be committed to the club. You also learn how to listen and respect other people’s views; to present ideas
so that others are not offended,’ says Hari.
There are clubs in Qatar just for women only and for teenagers, and Toastmasters offer short Speechcraft courses for non members who simply want to improve their public speaking. Hari urges everyone to have a go: ‘It’s very lively, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been involved for nine years!’
To find out more call Hari Raghavan on 581 8308 or visit the website at www.dohatoastmasters.org and www.qatartoastmasters.org. There are also clubs in Dukhan and Al Khor.