Toastmasters: Where Authors Are Made

Toastmasters: Where Authors Are Made. Go ahead, fellow Toastmasters. Consult your manuals. Check the Toastmasters International site. No, you are not crazy. The real slogan still reads Toastmasters: Where Leaders Are Made. But I think most Toastmasters would agree that the organization helps us to grow in a great number of ways. We become better speakers, true leaders, and in many cases, real writers. If you google the topic, you will find an assortment of articles and podcasts about it and testimonials from individual members who have become published authors. It stands to reason that Toastmasters would be beneficial to those of us looking to publicize and promote our books. But I’d like to share with you a few of the ways Toastmasters helped me with the writing process itself and allowed me to take Once in Love with Lily from a fun, little National Novel Writing Month project to a published novel.

First, crafting speeches gave me an edge when it came to structuring my story. In the beginning, I struggled with the story arc. While the action was intriguing, it lacked the proper flow. Then one day, my editor, fellow Toastmaster Eileen James, said to me, “Think about how you put together a good speech. You begin by thinking about the end. Where do you want to go with this speech or story? What is the intended ending? Now, how do you get there? Remember to tie the ending back to the beginning to satisfy the audience’s need for cohesiveness.” A novel is a bigger project than a speech, but it still has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Once I started thinking of it that way, I was able to put together a story that was grounded, but showed growth, as the characters learned real lessons.

Second, through my experiences as an evaluator, grammarian, or ah-counter, I learned to become a good listener. This can be very helpful when coming up with ideas for stories. (Consider that fair warning that anything you say can and may be used against you in a future novel!) In addition, it helps to create realistic, natural-sounding dialog. I’ve become accustomed identifying patterns of speech, accents, verbal ticks, colorful quotes or phrases. I’m not that creative after all. I could never have come up with something like “He’s all hat and no cattle.” But bits like that are the things that make characters real and, I hope, make the dialog come alive on the page.

Third, as early as project four in the Competent Communicator Manual “How to say it” we are taught to look at word choice, to choose words that paint a vivid picture and convey the most accurate visual or explanation possible. If I hadn’t known “how to say it”, I might have kept descriptions simple with something like: “As she walked down the streets of New York, she couldn’t help but notice how crowded and noisy it was.” But thanks to my Toastmasters training, I came up with this:

She headed down 8th Avenue through the throngs of people already crowding the streets. “Ah, New York,” she thought. “The honking taxis, the charming street vendors with their poached sunglasses and purses, and the faint smell of homeless that lurks just off the main drag really give it a certain je ne sais quoi.” She crossed the street against the light along with the natives, leaving a gaggle of tourists in the dust. (Excerpt from Once in Love with Lily by Cathryn K. Thompson)

Which example did the better job of transporting you to the streets of NYC? Of course, the second example would be pretty wordy for a typical 5-7 minute manual speech, but in a novel there is room to elaborate.

I can’t say that Toastmasters has taught me much about romance. There is a code of ethics to contend with, after all. But it certainly has helped me to hone my writing skills, to tell a story with a goal or lesson, to depict true-to-life characters and conversations, and to choose the best way to say it when it comes to setting the scene or conveying emotions. I never knew I had an author in me. Maybe you do too. You never know when or where inspiration will strike. When it does, Fellow Toastmasters,  take advantage of your already vast experience. Write it down. Develop it. Tell your own story. Even if you have to publish it under an assumed name! Show the world what Toastmasters has done for you.  If you’re not a Toastmaster, visit a club near you and experience it for yourself. Toastmasters: Where Leaders… and Authors… Are Made.

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“You’ll shoot your eye out!”

The following is an adaptation of a speech I gave several years ago in my Toastmasters club. I found it in an old folder, and it still amused me. I thought I would share.

What’s the Matter with Kids Today? It was a question raised in song in the musical Bye-Bye Birdie. It’s a question that has been raised by older generations for decades. We find ourselves looking at our youth and wondering why they seem to lack common sense. We ask how they have become so entitled, with no sense of responsibility. If you ask me, the problem doesn’t originate with the children. They have not evolved into senseless creatures all by themselves. Today’s children are victims of society. As a society, we no longer appear to value this asset. We have made it too simple to do something stupid and either blame someone else or claim that we didn’t know any better. Law makers vindicate people who spill scalding hot coffee themselves then sue, and the only thing that doesn’t come with a warning label is your crazy Aunt Earlene.

The aforementioned McDonald’s lawsuit was so outrageous that it made the news all over the U.S. You might think that something so ridiculous would cause us to take a long hard look at ourselves, but I’m not sure that discouraged others from filing silly lawsuits. In fact, it may have encouraged it. The Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch listed several similar cases.

One homeowner sued the owners of a local business saying that their dust was trespassing on her property.  Of course, once it was established that dust had no legs and could not intentionally trespass, the case was dismissed.

Another woman, a housekeeper, stole what she thought was a decorative candle from a house that she was cleaning. During dinner with friends, she lit the “candle.” It turned out to be a firecracker and caused a small explosion. She later sued her client for leaving the firecracker laying around the house without a warning on it.

A woman leaving the hospital in a wheel chair was pushed into a parking gate. She sustained minor head injuries and sued, not the person who pushed her into the gate, but the manufacturer of the gate.  If you’re going to sue in a situation like that, at least get your priorities straight! The jury rightfully found that the gate maker was not at fault.

Even those convicted of crimes themselves continue to blame others for their problems. In Michigan, a prisoner sued the state because prison food was causing a flatulence problem. The Attorney General’s office estimated that frivolous prisoner lawsuits like that one waste several million dollars in state tax dollars every year.

Maybe they need more warning signs posted in those prison cafeterias. After all, nearly everything else in the US comes with some kind warning. Vacuum cleaners include such directions as: “Do not pick up anything smoking or burning” and “Do not immerse in water.”  Did someone wake up one day and decide to use their Hoover to clean out the pool? Why does the little packet of silicon in your new shoe box read “Do not eat?” Some brilliant individual one day mistook it for a snack. Now, steps must be taken to warn others and avoid prosecution. Once upon a time, there was a site called Wackywarnigns.com which gave several other examples like these. A Laundromat washer bore this sign: “High Speed Spins – Do not put a person in this washer.”  It’s a good thing that label is posted. That way the multi-taskers would know better than to wash their laundry and their children in the same machine. A warning on a flushable toilet brush cautioned, “Do not use for personal hygiene.” Apparently Swiffer brand wet wipes should also include this warning, because my principal’s kid did exactly that when he accidentally left the box on the back of the toilet. Kudos to him. Rather than sue, he suggested his son pay more attention to the “home care” label the next time.

Here are a two more serious warnings:  A fuel Tank Cap warns, “Never use a lit match or open flame to check fuel level.”  A&W soda labels state: Warning: Contents under pressure. Cap may blow off causing eye or other serious injury. As a middle school teacher, I can see that happening as a result of a “double dog dare” in the lunch room. “Dude, I bet you can’t open that bottle with your eye!” Still, I ask you, is it really the root beer’s fault that middle school kids are crazy?

Why should children think for themselves or try to solve a problem by using common sense when we don’t expect adults to? If you have a youngster in your life, talk to them about what they watch on TV so they don’t turn play time into an episode of Myth Busters gone wrong.  Help them learn about safety and making smart choices.  Teach them to be responsible for there own mistakes. Don’t help your toddler dial a lawyer when he burns his tongue on his Hamburger Happy Meal.  Teach him to think first and blow on it next time.

Insanity Now

For those of you who were alarmed by the title – no, it is not a counterattack on Susan Powter, the 90’s fitness guru, who encouraged us to “Stop the insanity!” It is, in fact, a tip sheet with advice on what to do and what not to do to win a Humorous Speech contest. Some of you may be thinking, “Don’t compete in the first place!” But that is not my advice. Speech contests, while scary and nerve-wracking, are also entertaining and exciting. Going to a Toastmasters Area contest is always a great networking and educational experience. If you want the additional satisfaction of taking home a trophy, there are a few things you should remember.

  1. Do practice. Practice frequently. Practice out loud. Practice in front of a mirror. Stomp around in your living room to practice staging. Talk to yourself, no matter who’s watching, and no matter how ridiculous it makes you feel.
  2. Do not forget to put the time and place on your calendar and then proceed to forget about the contest entirely until the day before.
  3. Do get a good night’s sleep on the eve of the contest.
  4. Do not assume that six hours of sleep will be sufficient. If you go out with friends and dance until after midnight, chances are, even your new Mary Kay makeup will not be enough to hide the dark circles, and you will not have the energy needed to put on your best show. (Especially if you are old enough to remember Susan Powter in the first place.)
  5. Do everything you can to prepare for the contest in advance, so you can feel confident the day of, and remain unshaken when the competition appears funnier than you.
  6. Do not sweat it. If the contestant before you gives a speech titled “Insanity Now” about suffering at the hands of his wife on a torturous trip to the grocery store, in an amusing accent, with great gestures and expressions… chances are, you’re going to lose anyway. Sit back, relax, and enjoy it!

Jesus, Drugs, and Whitney Houston

Everyone knows that as a parent you will eventually have to tackle difficult topics with your kids. You assume that as they grow you will have to teach them about smoking, drugs, sex, and other big issues. What no one tells you is that there are no rules as to when these topics come up. No one told me that I would be driving home from a Toastmasters meeting on a Tuesday night with my four and six year olds in the backseat giving the longest, most important table topic of my life.

It all started on our way out of the meeting. Someone had given a speech or a table topic about the dangers of smoking or something. I don’t even recall the specifics anymore. My son began before we even got in the car. I should have known I was in for it. The conversation went something like this:

“Mom, smoking is bad for you, right?”

“Yes it is.”

“But, people in our family smoke.”

“Yes they do.”

“Why? Don’t they know it’s bad for you?”

“Yes. I’m sure they do.”

“Then why do they do it?”

“Because cigarettes are addictive.”

He got in the car and was quiet for a moment. Then it began again.

“What’s addictive?”

I sighed as I eased out of the parking space. I didn’t really want to get into it while driving, because- you should know- I’m a bad driver as it is. I don’t really need distractions. But, you never know how many opportunities you will have to discuss these things with your kids while they are actually listening. At the moment, the kids were strapped into the backseat, a captive audience, so I chose my words carefully, trying to be simple, but effective.

“Addictive is when you have something and you just want more of it, like when you eat chocolate and it’s so good that you just want more of it.”

“Why are cigarettes addictive?”

“Because they have a drug called nicotine in them.”

That satisfied him for a moment, as the sun began to set, the situation worsened. It started to rain and my ever-inquisitive boy continued.

“Drugs are bad for you too, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then why do people do drugs?”

I sighed again as I turned the wipers on.

“Well, because drugs can make you feel good at first and people don’t know how bad they really are. By the time they realize it, it’s too late to stop.”

“Whitney Houston did drugs and she died.”

“Yes.”

Then my daughter got in on it.

“I miss Whitney Houston.”

“It is sad, isn’t it?” (She’s four! Does she even know a Whitney Houston song?)

“Why did Whitney Houston die?” she wanted to know.

The windows were starting to steam up, probably from all of our hot air.  I turned on the defogger.

“Ah… they say she took too many prescription drugs, so you see, even drugs from your doctor can be dangerous if you’re not careful about following directions.” I was feeling pretty good about working that in. But it wasn’t over.

We were traveling down Riverside Drive, a dark and windy road when my daughter hit me with another curve ball. Whitney died. She missed Whitney. So naturally, another death occurred to her, and she cried, “I miss Jesus!”

“Yeah,” her brother said. “Jesus died.” (Thank you vacation bible schoo!)

“Why did Jesus die?” she asked. (I take it back… thanks for nothing VBS!)

I turned up the wipers and tried to focus. Everything seemed to be happening so fast. Rain, headlights, questions. “Well, it is said that Jesus died to save us from our sins.”

“He sacrificed himself for us, right mom?”

“Yes.”  (My wise little boy!)

“You would sacrifice yourself for us, right mom?” (Holy cow! Where did that come from?)

“Yes, honey, of course I would.” (Dear, God, would this drive never end?)

It was pouring by that time and I hit a puddle. They were relentless. We hydroplaned. As I struggled to keep control, my daughter said, “What about dad?  Would he sacrifice himself for us?”

I couldn’t take anymore. “You’ll have to ask your father!” I shouted.

Two minutes later, we pulled on to our street. The kids clamored out of the car and ran into the house as I lay back exhausted in the driver’s seat. And you know, they didn’t ask their father! Part of me wondered why I had been blessed with the tough questions and not him. But I’m thankful that they felt they could ask, and happy that we could be so open with each other. I’m also thankful that I’m a Toastmaster, so that I wasn’t completely panic stricken and was able to formulate somewhat coherent answers. I’m actually hopeful that we will have more of these types of conversations, even if they are at night, in the dark, in the car, in the middle of a monsoon! Oh, who am I kidding? Next time they’re riding home with dad!