Due to language barrier, many international students and post-doctoral fellows cringe at the thought of public speaking. However, in the movie The King's Speech, King George VI, a stuttering sovereign, overcame his stammering condition and successfully made his first wartime radio broadcast. His experience tells us: persistence in practice is the pathway to success.
Americans have been trained to express themselves with comfort and confidence since kindergarten. On the contrary, the lack of public speaking training imposes threats to the advancement of many international students’ graduate study and career development. Especially for international scientists, the intensive bench work makes receiving public speaking training almost impossible. Therefore, presenting research in an engaging manner is a constant challenge for them. In contrast, their admirable American peers can give brilliant talks about their research even when the results do not concur with the proposed hypothesis. The reality is, no matter what career path you pursue in the future, the skill to give a clear and accessible presentation is essential.
When I realized my problem in public speaking, I felt aimless and desperate until I finally joined a public speaking club, recommended by my friend (the cute girl who ordered ‘cauliflower’ by saying ‘albino broccoli’ to the waiter in the first blog of this series (see our first blog). The name of the club is Toastmasters International (https://www.toastmasters.org/). The meeting we went to was at Hunter College. The meeting was organized by a Toastmaster, the host. The Toastmaster sets up a theme and introduces different speakers and evaluators with fun transitions related to the theme. There are three sections of a meeting: prepared speeches, table topics, and evaluations. The prepared speeches are delivered by well-prepared and passionate club members. The table topics section is a series of impromptu speeches. A participant comes up to the stage, and the Topics Master throws a question. At the end of each meeting, there is an evaluation section and each prepared speech is evaluated in an encouraging and stimulating way.
As a welcomed guest, I was volunteered by others to participate in the table topics, although I had no idea what I should do and felt frightened in front of all those strangers. The theme of the evening was “Hero,” and the question was “Who is your hero and why?” I fumbled through my memory storage system and felt terrified that there was nothing I could come up with at that moment. My body was frozen, my blood was burning, and my heart was jumping to my throat. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and thought about my grandma, who has remained a comfort and inspiration to me, even though she passed away many years ago. Right! She is my hero! She is someone I continue to love and admire so much. I opened my eyes, relaxed my body, and told some stories about my dearest grandma sharing food with others during the Great Chinese Famine in the 1960s. She was always courageous, generous, and kind. Her experiences and actions shaped who I am, with all her kindness and virtuousness running in my blood. As I reminisced, I almost forgot I was on the stage. My emotional memories brought my grandma to life for the audience at that moment. Therefore, I received a very big applause, which really built up my confidence. My friend told me she almost cried when she heard my grandma’s body was swollen due to the lack of protein during the Famine. This experience tells me that I am more comfortable if I talk about someone I love, something I am familiar with, or a topic that has grabbed my passion.
Attracted by the friendly and passionate atmosphere, I joined the club and received two basic manuals. One is the Competent Communication manual, which focuses on learning and practicing speech skills, such as the organization of a speech, the use of body language, and vocal variety. The other is the Competent Leadership manual, which includes different tasks and responsibilities to develop leadership skills, such as evaluating other people’s speeches, being a Toastmaster, and mentoring a new member. Upon completion of each manual, a corresponding award is granted, and there are more advanced manuals to help continue one’s improvement afterwards. Since I began the adventure of improving my public speaking and leadership skills at the Hunter Toastmasters club (http://huntertoastmasters.org/), I have given six prepared speeches, participated in a debate tournament, organized a meeting as a Toastmaster, led table topics as a Topics Master, and evaluated three speeches. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined being able to find the courage to do all these things a year ago.
Since I became a member of the club, I have heard about many hilarious experiences, touching stories, and inspiring speeches. I have met great people who are so energetic and encouraging. For example, Junior Baptiste, the President of the Hunter Toastmasters, felt painfully anxious at the thought of performing in front of a large audience when he was in high school. However, his passion for poetry helped him build confidence in front of the audience when he performed at talent shows. Afterwards, he took classes such as Argument and Debate and Public Speaking in college, which led him to where he is now. Junior told me, “…the audiences are almost always supportive.., and the fears that we experience … are nothing other than negative stories our mind creates.” I also met a member of Toastmasters International from Canada, Marie Betteley. Marie has been visiting different clubs in NYC, Paris, and Moscow when she travels around the world. These experiences have opened up new horizons for her. She has met many international friends with the same goal-- building self-confidence through developing leadership and public speaking skills.
Now, going to the club has become part of my life. Strong friendships have been established among the club members. When I need help, I know I am not alone and I am learning every day. Although the change we seek always requires great courage, it is never too late to improve.
Many special thanks to Junior Baptiste and Marie Betteley for sharing their experiences with me for this article.
The author of the You Are Not Alone series, Yue Liu, is a doctoral candidate at Hunter College and CUNY’s Institutional Representative of INET NYC. Please email Yue at email@example.com if you have any ideas for our future blogs.