January 17th 2012. Impact Hub Prague.
Prague Business Toastmasters demo meeting.
“I’ll give it a second chance,” I’m telling myself. These guys have put together quite a crowd. 60 people is my estimate. I’m curious. I wonder whether the speakers today will be as bad as those I saw during my first (and so far last) visit of a Toastmasters meeting one year ago. I still remember one of the speakers from that evening. She was stiff, confused and boring. Nobody’s perfect, I guess, but that performance was way below the imperfection level.
Today it’s going to be better either way, I’m not alone in the audience. My friend Tomek asks me: “Lukas, you’re going to speak today, right?” I laugh. I know Tomek from our studies of banking in Italy. In our study group of 27 people: Whenever there was an opportunity to give a presentation – I went for it. Why? I don’t even remember. We were a small class, we knew each other well and I wanted to use every opportunity to learn. That’s probably why I said “yes” to everything. Even to giving presentations.
But that was more than year ago. Back then, in the final year of my studies, I felt like a king. Now, after one year in management consulting: I felt like a small fish trying to swim among sharks. I had no reason at all to speak to 60 strangers.
Luckily – this was just a demonstration meeting. The Toastmasters will demonstrate what the meeting looks like. We – the Audience – will watch and assess whether that’s something we like.
“You know that I would love to, I’m telling Tomek. But it’s a demo meeting. No chance for me to speak.”
“Hmm. Too bad. Too bad,” Tomek replies, shaking his head.
A guy with eyes of a street entertainer gets to the front of the room. The crowd quiets. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We’re glad you came here tonight. Please switch off your mobile phones. And help me welcome the Toastmaster of the evening…” He says the name and starts clapping like it was the most natural thing in the world. The crowd of 60 joins. The applause feels like it could lift me off my chair.
Then – a girl, also about my age – comes up on the stage. To my surprise – it’s the stiff, confused and boring girl I remembered from one year ago. Only – this time she is neither stiff, nor confused, nor boring. She is good. She is energetic and confident. And she explains to us that they had decided to start a new Toastmasters club to allow business people develop their skills surrounded by like-minded individuals.
As different performers take their turn on the stage, I am becoming more and more impressed. I am also becoming aware that even though I considered presentation skills to be my strength, these guys and girls are way better than me.
Then the fun part arrives: Table Topics. The Table Topics Master, a tall woman with a broad smile and black hair, explains the structure: You get a question. You have a few seconds to think. Then you answer in a speech of 1-2 minutes. “I’m curious how good they’ll be with that,” I think.
“Because this is a demo meeting,” she says, “I think it’s a great opportunity for someone from the audience who is not a Toastmaster to try.” The smile freezes on my lips. A shot of adrenaline. “This should not be happening! Demo meeting means we just watch!” I think. I hope she picks someone else. Despite the chance being as low as 1:60, I’m paralyzed with fear.
She does not pick me. She does something worse. “Is there a volunteer?” she asks the 60 people sitting in the room.
The anxiety is so dense that I have a feeling I could touch it. An elbow under my ribs. I turn and see Tomek is grinning at me. “What are you waiting for?” he says. “This is what you do all the time, it’s a piece of cake for you. Just show them what you’ve got!” I am confused. He has clearly misjudged my abilities. Maybe he has created an image of me in his mind…
Image. Maybe it’s an image of me I wanted others to see. Maybe it was an image I was consciously trying to build during my last year of studies. Lukas from Prague. The guy who is never intimidated, never afraid to fail and who is ready to take any challenge.
That was a long ago though. Sitting here in an audience of 60 business professionals, back in my hometown, the idea to go to the front and speak – on a topic I don’t even know yet – terrifies me.
But there’s something that does not let me drop the idea completely.
Looking in Tomek’s eyes, I see… expectation. I realize that I like the image of courageous Lukas. I like it way more than the real Lukas who is pinned to his chair in fear. Now it’s show time. And that if the real Lukas remains sitting, the courageous Lukas in Tomek’s head – will die.
I look around the room. It’s still quiet. 60 business professionals trying to save themselves by becoming invisible. My friend who thinks I have nothing to be afraid of. And me. Contemplating whether there is a chance he is right.
I look at the woman in the front and raise my hand.
“I will do it.”
An applause of 60 pairs of hands lifts me off the chair. Propelled by an invisible but material force – I head towards delivering my first table topic.
Note: Header photo taken on 16th January 2017.