In my day to day life, I write code and I debug code. Most of the times, the interaction with others is done via email. I sometimes need to present my ideas, but usually to other developers that understand what I’m talking about. So for a long time I believed that presentation skills are not on my list of skills to hone. But I was wrong.
A couple of months ago I participated in a contest and I had to present in front of several intimidating people. It all went pretty well – once I got up there, I focused on what I had to say and I said it. But it wasn’t ideal. First of all, I was pretty nervous – I could feel my voice a little shaken. I was telling the right things, but I didn’t focus at all on body language or vocal variety. And the judges didn’t notice – thank God!, but my body has a peculiar way to deal with stress. Whenever I exceed a certain stress threshold, I get a weird irritation on my neck and arms. I remember I was wearing a white sweater. Let me tell you, the white / red contrast did little to alleviate my nervousness (fortunately, the sweater had long sleeves, so the damage was partially covered).
That’s when I decided to do something about my public speaking abilities. Actually, I wasn’t talking only about communication skills. I wanted to communicate more effectively, to increase my leadership potential, to build my ability to motivate and persuade. Since there was no way to just go out and speak in front of total strangers, I decided for the next best thing: Toastmasters. From the start, I really liked their pitch: “Worried about embarrassing yourself in front of an audience? In Toastmasters, that’s not possible. Our meetings offer a safe environment to fail – and learn from the experience. Everyone in the meeting was once a beginner and can identify with your nervousness.”
If you’ve never heard of it, Toastmasters is an international non-profit organization focused on improving speaking skills. Fortunately, there are a lot of people inside Microsoft that understand just how important being a great speaker is, and there are a lot of people with initiative. As a result, we have a lot of company toastmasters groups. I joined one that meets every Wednesday morning. And I have to tell you, the results have exceeded my expectations (and I usually have very high expectations…)
Toastmasters help you improve your speaking skills by doing. They give you a chance to practice in front of people that give you constructive feedback. They also help you build and improve your leadership skills. There are no teachers, the meetings are run by the members of the club – there are a lot of roles, each helping covering different leadership or presentation areas. The more you volunteer for roles, the faster you grow. You can choose the pace you want – nobody forces you to do anything you’re not ready to. But you have the chance to take it as far as you want.
Do developers need Toastmasters?
I think all developers should consider the potential benefits they could get out of it. As a result of joining toastmasters, I received feedback from my peers that my confidence improved considerably. Also, I don’t get the rush when I present in front of others anymore (I’m still nervous, but not horrified). For me, joining Toastmasters proved one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
For more information, visit www.toastmasters.org. You can look for a club in your area. If you are in Western Washington area, visit District 2 Toastmasters and start looking from there. If you work at Microsoft, search on the intranet for toastmasters – there are a quite a few clubs you can choose from.