District 28 Toastmasters Conference

Friday evening and all day Saturday, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Toastmasters District 28 Spring Conference. For those of you who don’t know what Toastmasters is, the short answer is it’s an international organization in 106 countries around the world, dedicated to helping its members improve their communication and leadership skills.

If I had to put my finger on just one single thing I enjoy most about Toastmasters, it’s being surrounded by people who are trying to improve and to be the best person they can be. If you surround yourself with toxic, negative people, there’s an exceedingly good chance that’s where you’re headed. However, if you surround yourself with positive, upbeat people who are striving to improve, to be the best they can be, and who have committed to help you do the same, well… let’s just say it’s a wonderful experience, a fantastic community and a great way to spend one’s days as we pass through planet Earth.

The keynote speaker and honored guest throughout the weekend was Lance Miller, Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) and winner of the 2005 World Championship of Public Speaking contest. Wow… what a speaker. Perhaps the most inspiring topic Lance discussed was during his keynote address, titled “Losing My Way to the World Championship”. Lance did not sign-up of for Toastmasters and become a World Champion the next day. Rather, it took year after year of LOSING contests to achieve the world championship. It’s a great lesson for us all. The road won’t always be clear, nor the ground always level. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle and the obstacles plentiful. Still, keep your eye on the prize, honestly evaluate yourself, make corrections in your course and never, ever, give up the ship.

We also had another honored guest, Paul W. Smith, morning anchor on WJR (760 on your AM dial). Paul was a tremendously entertaining speaker and we all agreed we could have listened to him for HOURS! He was very entertaining and so gracious to accept an invitation from District 28 and to speak at our event. It’s amazing to learn that he never prepares a speech. He just gets up and starts talking. Well, let me tell you.. he is VERY GOOD at it!

I made some great new friends with some Toastmasters from across the border in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. We sat with them at lunch and engaged in spirited conversation about healthcare reform as we asked them about their system. One gentleman said “no system is perfect, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one Canadian who doesn’t like our health care” and immediately, Kevin, also a Canadian shot his hand in the air as if to say “hello! Here’s one right here!” Kevin was very passionate about politics and explained the Canadian parliamentary, multi-party system to us. Clearly, Kevin was more conservative than his fellow club members who rolled their eyes at some of his analysis. Kevin has a better grasp on American politics than many Americans, which was very interesting.

After lunch we headed to training sessions before returning to the main dining room for the International Speech contest. Once again, we found ourselves sitting with our Canadian friends. Unfortunately, I can only remember the names of Kevin, Rick, Ada, Vladimir and Susan. There were a couple more (but I am terrible at remembering new names).

After the speakers had delivered their speeches, the room was cleared to prepare for dinner. Upon re-entering to be seated, Magda O’Hanlon (our treasurer) and I found ourselves seated completely on the opposite side of the room from where’d been sitting all day. Still, we landed with another table of Canadians – a different group this time. But alas, Magda tapped my arm and jerked her thumb over her shoulder. There were Vlad, Kevin, Ada and Rick sitting right behind us, back to back.

I have no clue how speech contests are judged. We are given scoring sheets so we can follow along and do our own scoring. I rate the speakers according to my own thoughts, but any speaker I rank as first has no chance to actually win the contest, and so it was again last night.

Let me tell you about one of the contestants, Lynn Fitzsimmons. When she was announced to speak, Lynn entered from the back of the room as all speakers do, but she was assisted by a companion who helped her make her way between all the tables and chairs in the banquet hall as she approached the stage. You see… Lynn is blind! With help from her companion and the Toastmaster of the Day, she climbed the steps and was lead to center stage. Lynn delivered a stirring speech of what it was like to be born blind, one of three blind sisters, to a blind mother and an angry, alcoholic father. She was misdiagnosed and put into a school for developmentally challenged children. Fortunately, one of the teachers saw the true Lynn and knew that she was not developmentally challenged. With this teacher’s help she made her way to a school for the visually-impaired and then a regular high school after that. She joked that when she was set up on a date with her future husband, he didn’t realize he really was getting a “blind date”. Lynn is now a mother, grandmother and successful business woman. Oh, and by the way, she’s also going represent District 28 at the World Championship of Public Speaking in California, because she won the contest! The new format of competition has eliminated the regional-level competition, so Lynn goes straight to the World Championship, though there are MANY semi-final rounds there to thin the ranks to a smaller group in the finals.

Whew… this is more typing than I planned on this Sunday morning, but I just wanted to convey to you the wonderful time I had at the Toastmasters District 28 Spring Conference. If you’re not a Toastmaster and this sounds motivating or inspiring to you, give me a shout and we’ll talk. It’s one of the best things you can do with your time.