I always thought ‘toastmasters’ wore fancy red jackets and were only hired for weddings to usher everyone to their seats, announce the entrance of the bride and groom and basically curtail long boring speeches by the head table. I couldn’t be more wrong.
Layal Baaklini has been a member of Toastmasters in Qatar since August 2010 and she kindly put me right. ‘It’s essentially an organisation that encourages and trains people on their communication skills, be it in an interview, one on one situation or in a large group. It’s about building confidence and training the individual in all aspects of public speaking.’
At once I’m interested. I personally have a huge fear of public speaking. Outwardly confident I can talk to anyone but stand me up in a room at the front, even filled with people I know, and cue dry mouth, sweaty palms, knocking knees and soundless fish-like mouth motions. Who knew there was an organisation out there to help?
Toastmasters International is a worldwide leader in communication and leadership development with over 280,000 members in 13,500 clubs across 116 countries. Participants learn to improve their speaking and leadership skills through workshops and projects with co-members evaluating each other’s presentations. In Qatar there are 37 clubs with over 800 members.
Layal is Club President of Aspire Toastmasters and explains that membership rates vary depending on the location of the club. ‘It’s a non profit organisation,’ she says. ‘You pay a basic USD$36 every six months direct to Toastmasters to cover the manuals etc. and then the rest depends on the club you are a member of, and how much they pay for the venue. Some clubs operate in hotels and have a buffet afterwards and some are just run in boardrooms with a snack after.’
Toastmasters meet every two weeks, the majority of clubs being held in the evening from 7pm to 9pm. ‘Members are assessed during meetings, we have an evaluator, a timer and even someone that counts how many times you say ‘erh’ or repeat words!’ says Layal. She explains that once you become a member the very first speech you make is about yourself. ‘After all,’ she points out, ‘It’s a subject you should be an expert on, as no-one knows you better than you do!’
I’m quaking just at the thought of this, hating both public speaking and talking about myself. It’s a good icebreaker though and Layal emphasizes that the idea is to develop the skills of public speaking in a comfortable environment and that feedback is constructive, encouraging, and geared to your level. ‘The feedback you receive at project one is very different from the feedback at project eight,’ says Layal.
Of course there are taboo topics such as religion, intimacy and politics but Layal assures me there are plenty of other topics to keep the group talking – which is of course what they do best! If you have a competitive side then you could even end up representing Qatar, as competitions are a regular occurrence as the best speakers step up on a worldwide stage to outtalk each other.
Although the main aim of this organisation is to encourage good communication skills and build confidence there’s another positive off shoot to attending. ‘Toastmasters is open to everyone so there’s the chance to meet so many different nationalities,’ explains Layal. ‘We often theme meetings; for Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, we encouraged people to come in national dress, decorated the room and had traditional snacks. For Christmas we had a tree and people brought wrapped gifts to exchange.’
The advantage of Toastmasters being a worldwide organisation is that even if you leave Doha you retain your membership, so once settled in a new country you can literally pick up just where you left off.
Layal’s infectious enthusiasm championing the obvious benefits of being a toastmaster suddenly evoke a picture of me there, on the podium, addressing the masses as the crowds cheer on. Then suddenly I’m back in a coffee shop in Doha with a cold cappuccino. Maybe one day, I just need to take the first step, and that’s always the hardest; cue sweaty palms…
For more information visit www.toastmasters.org, check out their Facebook page or email Layal direct at email@example.com. Aspire Toastmasters meet every second and fourth Wednesday from 7-9pm.