For 60 years, Toastmasters Japan has been helping would-be orators overcome their fear of public speaking.
By Kyle Mullin
Many of us fear it more than the most gruesome of terrors, even death. The scrutiny that leaves palms sweaty, the expectations that make voices shaky, the podiums that seem so towering to stand behind.
Public speaking may, statistically, rank as the most feared thing in the world. But Hisashi Watanabe says that phobia doesn’t have to be debilitating. As the governor of Toastmasters International District 76 in Tokyo, he and his fellow members regularly practice giving speeches and evaluating each others’ presentation skills, as part of a hobby that is designed to help members become better orators.
“People have a tendency to try and show themselves as superior or good in public, and they’re naturally afraid of failure,” Watanabe said of mindset that leaves many unseasoned presenters too self-conscious to speak. He adds: “They focus too much on themselves.”
Despite Toastmasters’ main goal of bolstering members’ public speaking, the program also allows those participants to partake in some exercises in selflessness. As Watanabe puts it: “Before I finish my speeches, the audience responds, and my content goes to the audience, not to myself. When I become nervous, I don’t think about that, I don’t think about me. Instead, I connect with the audience, and care about them. When I feel that kind of connection, my nervousness goes lower. And I think that happens to many people who practice public speaking.”
“This isn’t about giving you knowledge. People can get knowledge from reading books. This is a chance to practice and grow an important skill in a very friendly and encouraging atmosphere.”
The club, which was formed in 1932 in California, now has 313,000 members in over 14,650 clubs across 126 countries. Toastmasters started in Japan 60 years ago at a U.S. army base, where officers worked on oratory skills with curious Japanese locals. Today, Toastmasters has over 4000 members in Japan, spread between 159 clubs (the majority of which are conducted entirely in English, although there are a number of Japanese language and bilingual clubs as well). The club’s curriculum is divided into a series of steps designed to improve members’ speaking skills in a variety of domains, from storytelling to technical presentations and interpersonal communication. Participants regularly ready speeches that run between 5 and 7 minutes in length on a variety of topics, and they are in turn evaluated by fellow members and offered constructive, positive feedback.
Watanabe went on to describe one particular member who showed vast improvement in the program. “One of our members was a very shy lady. When she talked, her voice and hands shook. But she gained so much confidence, in this supportive environment, that she went on to organize our club BBQs and even start her own club.”
Watanabe adds that he has seen many more such success stories at Toastmasters, because its members recognize the unique gifts that the program offers them. He goes on to say that: “This isn’t about giving you knowledge. People can get knowledge from reading books. This is a chance to practice and grow an important skill in a very friendly and encouraging atmosphere.”
In that way, the club helps the speakers learn as much, if not more, than the audience they are presenting to. Watanabe says that’s because, aside from the evaluation from other members, Toastmaster speakers are also taking stock of their own experiences.
“The speeches are usually based on a topic and a memorable event from the speaker’s life pertaining to that topic. The speaking time is short, so they have to concentrate on the message— what exactly the event was, and what they learned from it. While making a speech, they start to rethink and reorganize how that event taught them, and how they learned from it. It’s a great opportunity to become organized and think about how they were changed by this event.”
Watanabe adds that the club still helps him grow and learn in that fashion. “I still get nervous speaking in public sometimes. But by practicing again and again and again with the other members, I get more and more comfortable.”
Toastmasters Japan is a non-profit organization. To find out more about Toastmasters groups around Tokyo, please visit: www.district76.org/en/