In Praise of Toastmasters

In Praise of ToastmastersI don’t care who you are or what you do, being a good communicator is an essential skill in life and for that, Toastmasters is probably one of the best learning experiences that your money can buy. I recommend it for everyone.

It is the eve of my final Toastmasters speech, after tomorrow I will officially be a Competent Communicator (you can go to the Toastmasters header to see all my speeches. I tried videotaping all of them but the first few had some operator errors…as in I forget to press the shutter button so it would actually record…)

For those of you unfamiliar with Toastmasters, everyone starts out with the Competent Communication (CC) manual and there are 10 speeches to complete. Each speech focuses on a particular part of public speaking – tone, body language, organization, persuasion, etc. The tenth speech is a culmination of everything you learned – it is the inspirational speech. After you finish the CC manual you are free to choose from a variety of other manuals based on your individual goals (titles include: The Entertaining Speaker, Technical Presentations, Special Occasion Speeches, Communicating on Video, Facilitation Discussion and Storytelling)

My goal was to finish the manual in 10 months – one speech for every month. I will have achieved this goal but I wasn’t paying attention in the early months so I didn’t sign up fast enough. In order to finish in 10 months I’ve had to do four speeches in a row. I’ll be very happy when I complete this last one and will take a break from the speech writing/giving for the summer. There are other roles in the club that I’d like more experience in anyway, such as being Toastmaster or an evaluator.

As I said, everyone can benefit from being in Toastmasters. It doesn’t matter what your job is, whether you’re a stay at home mom, blue collar worker, student or CEO, we are always communicating. Even when we aren’t talking, we communicate through our body language, how we dress, our eye contact, mannerisms…everything we do says something about us.

Let me walk you through a typical meeting at my local club. Other clubs might have slight differences but there is a basic structure to most clubs.

Our club has several different roles that are filled each week by members. There is a Toastmaster, who determines the theme of the meeting and is kind of like the Ringmaster in a circus. There is a timer, speeches and evaluations are timed. A general evaluator who evaluates the overall meeting – and speech evaluators. Feedback is critical to our growth as speakers. I was resistance to “areas of improvement” because I saw that as a criticism but I soon realized that it was more important for me to grow than get praise (see this post). The Table Topics master picks out topics and then chooses someone from the audience to speak about it for 1-2 minutes. Table topics can be intimidating but it helps you think on your feet. We also have what we call a WAG, who comes up with the word of the day, counts “ah’s” and other superfluous words (some people might use “like” a lot or “and”) and checks grammar. Sometimes we have a meeting listener who will ask questions about the meeting to see if we have been paying attention. Participating in these roles, along with doing the speeches, helps build a well-rounded communication education.

Some of the specific benefits of Toastmasters are:

  • Confidence – it’s said that public speaking is more feared than death. Preparation and practice are the only way to overcome it.
  • Leadership skills  
  • Clarify your writing. Writing the speech is one of my favorite parts. Not only do you have to structure your writing in a way that makes sense, but you have to stay within a certain time frame so being succinct, knowing what to keep in and take out as well as narrowing your focus are important skills to hone.
  • Think on your feet. Sometimes we’re called upon to make a few impromptu words at a special occasion or your boss asks you for your opinion. Learning to think on your feet and be articulate is an important skill.
  • Listening skills. Communication is not just about talking, but also about listening and unfortunately our listening skills aren’t as developed as our speaking skills. Being an evaluator helps refine those skills
  • Critical thinking skills. Coming up with speech topics, research and organizing your thoughts into a coherent whole requires thought. As an evaluator you have to discern what the speaker is doing well and what they could improve upon.
  • Memory. I have yet to use notes in any of my speeches (though highly paid public speakers say they still use notes and there is nothing wrong with it.) I don’t say this to brag, I memorize my speeches because it’s good for my brain. My first speech I took 2 weeks to memorize. My ninth speech I learned in a day. I’ve given myself 3 days to learn the 10th speech because it is the longest speech and I didn’t want to be rushed. I’m hoping to finish strong!
  • Learn to take criticism. Criticism might be too harsh a word. We like to call them “grow” points but the fact is, if you want to learn and grow, you have to be able to objectively take constructive criticism.
  • Look for the positives. Everything about Toastmasters is geared toward being positive. Let people know their strengths, find something good in everything and when you do have a “grow” point, we phrase it in a positive light.
  • It’s fun! Turns out I’m a bit of a ham so getting up in front of an audience is fun. I love being animated and I always try to be either entertaining, informative or inspiring. Not sure if I achieve any of them but that’s always my goal.
  • Support. Finding a good club to call home is crucial. My club, while small, is filled with some of the kindest, funniest, supportive people that I’ve ever met.

I look back on my body of work with Toastmasters so far and I’m proud of everything I’ve done and have learned a lot. Maybe there’s a TED talk in my future…

 

One model for creating change

One model to make permanent changeIn my last post, I talked about how our subconscious mind, where our thoughts and beliefs reside, can sabotage our efforts to change without us even realizing it. It’s often the reason most new year’s goals are abandoned within the first month. Our beliefs and habits (including habits of thought) are so ingrained in our minds that no matter how much conscious exertion we put on trying to change (i.e. willpower), we often fail because we aren’t addressing underlying beliefs. The biggest problem is we usually aren’t aware that it’s our beliefs stopping us. We are trying to create change by using the wrong tools.

I’d like to share with you one model for making change.

Before I get into the specifics, I’d like to point out that change is not going to happen overnight, in most cases. It’s going to take practice so don’t be hard on yourself if you slip. Please don’t give up because it didn’t work the first time. You’re working against some pretty powerful forces.

Cognitive behavior therapy offers one model for change. It’s called the ABC model and this is how it works:

A = Activating event

B = Belief or perception

C = Consequence

So let’s say you decided to lose weight and just inhaled a whole quart of ice cream. You’re feeling a little disappointed in yourself (to say the least…) Here’s what you do. Get a piece of paper and write down the activating event – “Ate a quart of ice cream”. Stick with the facts.

Now write your belief or perception. You might write something like “What’s the use of even trying, I have no willpower.” “I’m a big, fat pig! I don’t deserve to be happy!” Get it all out. Often we’ll use absolutes (always, never) or words like “should”, “must”, “have to”, “ought to” which are indicative of irrational thinking.

What’s the consequence of those beliefs? Write them down. These are self-defeating emotions – guilt, anger, depression, a sense of worthlessness, self-pity, etc. These emotions don’t serve us, they leave us stuck and put us into a cycle of shame and blame.

In order to change you need to challenge/dispute your original belief. It could go something like this “I was stressed and hungry from skipping lunch. There are plenty of times when I’ve made healthy choices. I’ll ask my coach for some stress relieving tactics  and make sure that I make time for a healthy lunch so I’m better prepared.”

Now note the effect that this has on you emotionally. Do you feel differently than when you described the consequence? This part of the exercise elicits more positive emotions (disappointment, concern, sadness, hope). You recognize that you had a set back and have come up with some proactive solutions to keep it from happening again. This gives us a feeling of control and we often recommit to seeing our goals through.

Give this a try next time you’re having trouble making changes in your life

 

The Intellectual vs. Emotional Mind

The Intellectual vs. Emotional MindIn a recent post, I talked about how I knew, intellectually, that I wasn’t a fraud, fake or a failure. I have accomplished a lot in my life. I graduated college, raised a phenomenal human being, mastered various skills, created tons of stuff with my own two hands, became a certified coach, formed some fabulous relationships, am a dedicated runner and yoga practitioner and have overcome an eating disorder, just to name a few. I have plenty of proof to know that I am a capable, intelligent, resourceful, compassionate and ever growing individual.

Intellectually, I know this, yet I still occasionally have feelings of doubt and inadequacy. Like I don’t have anything worthwhile to offer and will never be good enough. I turn into an emotional basket case.

It’s a battle between my intellectual and emotional selves.  Can you relate?

It’s no surprise that this battle is fought in our mind. There are actually 3 parts to our brain. The reptilian brain handles our vital biological functions such as breathing and pumping blood. It’s “largely unconscious, automatic and highly resistant to change”, according to Integrated Wellness Therapies article “The Role of Three Brains”. 

The limbic brain handles our emotions. It’s where we make value judgments that influence our behavior and form social bonds. It connects events with feelings. It is “active in situations that arouse fear, anger, frustration and pity.” It also operates mostly on a subconscious level.

The neocortex is our thinking brain (our intellectual self) and is responsible for abstract thought, imagination, higher reasoning and language.

These three separate parts of our brains don’t operate independently of each other, they are connected and the limbic and neocortex “influence each other via ongoing communication, linking emotions with thinking and voluntary action…Whilst we like to think of our neocortex or thinking brain as being the conscious decision maker, it is, in reality only selectively conscious. Psychologists generally agree that at best we are only 15% conscious of our emotions and behaviors. This means that even when we think we’re being rational and conscious, we’re largely being driven subconsciously by previous similar experiences and emotions.

Here’s the thing you need to know – “our subconscious brain is the ultimate decision maker. It always wins.” If it’s a matter of survival, our reptilian brain takes over – the fight or flight response. If it’s not a life-threatening situation, then emotional memories that have become ingrained, will triumph. The challenge, then, when making changes, is to overcome that emotional conditioning to create new habits or patterns of behavior. When we sabotage our efforts to change, it is our subconscious mind merely trying to keep the status quo.

Growing up, I believed that mistakes were bad and determined my worth so I played it safe. I gave in and reinforced my fear of rejection and feelings of inadequacy over the decades. I’ve taken jobs that I was overqualified for and settled for less than I was worth.

I grew up in a household that neither encouraged or modeled any type of risk. It was an environment rife with control and rewarded “good” behavior – doing what you were told and not questioning why. Looking back with some maturity, a fair amount of counseling and perspective, I now understand the dysfunctional dynamics and have compassion for what we all went through.

That’s all fine and dandy except it doesn’t change the fact that I’m now stuck with these subconscious emotional responses that no longer serve me and what I want to achieve.

As I strike out on my own, forging an unconventional path (at least compared to what I grew up in) and challenging my beliefs, I often find my intellectual and emotional minds at odds. I get caught up in the excitement of learning new things, the freedom of being the master and designer of my own life and helping others do the same but inevitably, like clockwork, my emotional side starts getting nervous and shaking things up because I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone.

It’s a pattern I’ve come to know over the decades. I’d get excited about doing something and would make all sorts of plans. I am a Master Planner. After some progress, I’d often lose interest. Sometimes it was legitimate, it just wasn’t my thing. More often, though, I had my first challenge and I was scared. Having taken the easy way out most of my life, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to handle it, so my brain kicked in and did what it does best.

After my divorce I realized that I had spent my life living in fear and decided to use this as a rebirth, if you will, to live my life in love. It’s an ongoing process which I liken to peeling an onion. Just when you think you’ve tackled one issue, you realize that you just scratched the surface and have to diligently be aware of your thoughts and habits, constantly reinforcing new ones to replace those that are counterproductive.

It’s a two step process really – being aware and questioning your thoughts and then taking SMALL steps outside of your comfort zone.

Awareness is probably the hardest part because most of our thoughts and behavior is reactive – that 85% of our brain that works subconsciously. And once you question a thought, belief or assumption, you have to replace and keep reinforcing it so it becomes the go-to response.

Taking it one small step at a time helps you ease into new behaviors, gain momentum and prevents the warning bells from going off in our brains, activating those old patterns. For instance, if you want to start an exercise routine after you’ve been a confirmed couch potato, telling yourself you’re going to go to the gym for an hour everyday is going to raise some red flags. Start small, maybe 5 minutes, or a walk after dinner. Grow into your goals slowly and you have a chance of achieving them rather than trying to strong arm your way to success.

It won’t be easy. You will have set backs. But you will also have triumphs. Show yourself some compassion, let your emotional mind know that you understand and just keep moving forward.

Formula for Success

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I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, to create my own business that had flexible hours, aligned with my talents, strengths, values and passion and let me choose which projects I wanted to work on and who I wanted to work with. I’ve explored many ideas and much to my frustration and disappointment, none of them really worked out.

My biggest obstacle? Me.

One of the problems was I made these ridiculous plans that not only ignored my own natural tendencies but overwhelmed me before I even got started. I had schedules where I literally thought after a full day of work, I would come home and devote a full 3 hours to my venture-du-jour – everyday! And I expected to spend all of my weekends on it also. Not sure when I was planning on eating, sleeping, spending quality time with my family and friends, showering or dealing with all the other stuff life threw at me.

Finally I took stock of the things that were going right in my life. I’ve been a runner for nine years, practicing yoga for about 3 – consistently. Exercise has become a daily habit. So why have I been successful there and not other areas of my life?

Find your compelling reason for committing.

Motivation is the key to success. If we decide to do something because we were told to (by our doctor, spouse, boss, etc) or because we “should” (all good leaders should have an MBA) then we’re starting out handicapped. To increase our chances of achieving our goals, it should be our choice.

I started paying attention to my diet and exercise when a friend was diagnosed with cancer. She is the type to research everything and found that her daily soda habit was probably not helping. Even though I’ve always been a healthy eater (I was the kid that actually liked snacking on celery and carrots…) I had a 2-liter soda as well as some other unhealthy habits. Being over 40, I wanted quality in my years, not just quantity.

I have a strong commitment to a healthier lifestyle because there is so much more I want to do with my life and I want to be in good health to do it…hopefully for decades to come.

Start Small

Once I made the commitment, I decided to start exercising again. I eased into it with small steps. After I walked my son to school, I took a 2 mile brisk walk around the neighborhood. Nothing drastic. Then I started adding ankle weights. Walking became a habit.

Small steps are a great way to start anything. It helps us to overcome inertia and start, which is often the hardest part. It’s easy to commit to something small and easy – say five minutes. Five minutes can easily turn into 15, 30 or 60 if we get engrossed in a project. Five minutes doesn’t raise any alarms or bells in our brains (if it so much as gets a whiff of something stressful, it will go into survival mode and do everything it can to eliminate that stress and shut down our efforts to change) so it slips quietly under the radar . For me, walking was my “five minutes” because it’s something I know how to do and it fit easily in my schedule. It was non-threatening. I wasn’t demanding that I put my body, which was more used to being a couch potato than a track star, through some torturous “Biggest Loser” exercise-till-you-barf routine. I just opened my front door and walked out.

Another thing about small steps is that it allows us to grow into our goals. I often made schedules without taking into consideration that I was a beginner. We don’t expect a baby to come running out of the womb. That’s a good 1-2 years down the road. There are a lot of other little milestones that need to take place first. She needs to build muscle strength so she can hold her head up, sit up, roll over, crawl, walk and eventually run. I needed to take a step back and start at the beginning instead of trying to jump in at a higher level. Small steps help advance us through various skills and learning so we are mentally and physically prepared for the next challenge.

Find a buddy who will help you with your goals

Next, I was “dared” to do a six week boot camp with my co-workers. Five of us signed up for the 5:30 am class and I never missed one. At the end I was the strongest and healthiest that I’ve ever been. I didn’t want to lose all my hard work so when one of my co-workers suggested I run with her, I accepted.

I suffered those first couple of months. Fifteen minutes into the run and I’d be gasping for air and waved her on as I stopped to walk. But in a short time, I was able to keep up with, if not surpass her. The thing that kept me going was being accountable to someone. I didn’t like getting up at 5 am but I knew she’d be there waiting for me and I didn’t want to disappoint her. I know she’s part of the reason I developed the habit.

Having a buddy who is trying to reach a goal too and being accountable to each other can make things a lot easier. You have someone who can give you another perspective, you have someone you can commiserate with (it was either too hot or too cold – we complained about it but we still ran), you have someone cheering you on, you have someone who keeps it real. My running partner did so much more for me that just help me run, our running connected us on so many other levels and made the experience richer.

Find the formula and repeat it.

Once I saw the formula for achieving my exercise goals, I realized I could apply it to anything I did with the same success. I expanded my workout routine to include yoga. I may have been a yoga beginner but my running habit easily transferred into a yoga habit with little effort because I had already developed the “exercise” muscle.

When I applied this formula to other areas of my life, I found I had less stress, enjoyed the process more, moved forward quicker and saved myself a ton of time and aggravation.

I spent way too much time listening to the “experts” instead of looking at what actually worked for me. Take stock of your own success, those times you achieved your goal, and find the pattern. Test it out on your next goal. I’d love to hear your success formula.

 

Practice Makes Perfect – Process vs. Product thinking

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When I set goals for myself, I used to make the mistake of focusing on the product, not the process.

So what is the difference between process and product thinking and why is one better than the other?

When you focus on the product you have…a product, a thing, an inanimate object, an end result.

When you focus on the process, it affects and changes you. You struggle, learn, practice, improve, grow. You come out of it a different person than going in.

If you have a goal, say to write a book, the writing it is the process, the book is the product. Most of us get caught up in the book. We want it to be good. We want it to sell. We want the prestige being an author brings. We want approval and adoration.

There’s nothing bad about wanting any of those things, but it doesn’t have anything to do with actually writing.

Most goals/dreams (however you want to label it) require knowledge and skill of some sort and the only way to get is it to do it. In order to learn and improve, you’re going to have to practice.

Let me remind you of the definition of practice (verb):

  • to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.
  • Carry out or perform (a particular activity, method or custom) habitually or regularly.

That’s the process. It’s that simple and that hard.

So, to continue my writing analogy, if you want to write, quit focusing on the book and focus on becoming a writer. In the beginning you will probably be spewing out a lot of crap. That’s OK. Keep writing crap because if you’re focused on the process and try to improve (take classes, read books, ask for feedback) eventually you’ll write something good.

And one day you’ll be a writer who sells books.Or poems, articles, songs, plays..

The product ends, the process is ongoing. You never know where the process will lead you.