The event host was looking for someone to give a speech on stage. I kept my head down, trying not to make eye contact with her, but…
“Since it’s your first time here, would you like to give it a try?”
I looked up and met her gaze. She then reached out her hand to me and made an inviting gesture.
That was my first time attending a Toastmasters meeting. Toastmasters is an international non-profit organization that focuses on communication and public speaking, with clubs spread all over the world.
At that time, I had been in the United States for over two years and had just started my first job. When talking with my colleagues, I mentioned my desire to improve my English because I felt that I had been in the US for quite some time, yet I still didn’t dare to speak in groups. A colleague encouraged me to try Toastmasters, saying that it was a place where people in the United States practiced public speaking and that foreigners could definitely practice English there too.
I took the advice and found a nearby club online. The meetings took place every Tuesday night at 7PM, and new comers can attend them for free.
On the day of the meeting, I arrived on time, signed the guestbook and took a seat on the side.
After the host introduced various roles, the meeting began. A few minutes later, we moved on to the Table Topics segment, where the host would give a random topic and call upon a participant to speak for one to two minutes.
A young man volunteered and passionately spoke on the topic. A young woman followed, telling a vivid story. I was really impressed by their stories, wishing I could be as confident and skilled in front of an audience.
As the segment progressed, I started to feel nervous about the possibility of being called upon to speak. Near the end of the segment, my name was called.
Suddenly, my name was called. My face flushed, and my heart raced.
I was okay with talking to one person at a time, but I rarely spoke in front of a crowd. If I ever did, it was with a well-rehearsed script. I had never dared to do impromptu speaking. Should I decline?
But as I looked at the host, I felt a sudden determination to give it a try. After all, what did I have to lose?
“I can give it a try.”
The host smiled and welcomed me to join her on stage. She gave me the topic: “Tell us about your Sundays.”
My Sundays? I wasn’t sure if I had much to share — they were generally ordinary, but I did have some interesting adventures. The area where I lived had a beautiful environment, so sometimes I would spend the weekend exploring nature. I once took my bike and rode close to thirty miles to find a redwood forest. As I made my way through the forest, the sunlight filtered through the trees, casting a warm glow on my skin and the rooftops of small wooden houses that I passed by. I took deep breaths of the air filled with the scent of leaves, my eyes scanning the surroundings for any signs of mystical forest creatures. Would a forest sprite appear in front of me at any moment?
The moment I started speaking, my mind went blank. I struggled to recall what I did on Sundays, but nothing came to mind.
“My Sundays are, um, quite ordinary. After waking up, I eat, do laundry. Um, sometimes I go to the supermarket to buy groceries. Um, what do I usually buy…?”
As I spoke, I realized that I didn’t actually shop for groceries on Sundays. Would someone notice that I was making things up?
“…That’s all I have to say, thank you.” Stammering, I managed to last a minute. So embarrassed!
Almost pleading, I looked at the host, eager to run off the stage. When I returned to my seat, my heart was still pounding.
For the next hour, I couldn’t focus on anything, as I replayed the embarrassing moment over and over in my head, thinking maybe this was not the right place for me, and maybe I should not come back again.
I made it to the end of the meeting, and as I got up to leave, the host caught me.
“You were really brave just now,” she said with a smile.
That caught me off guard. Was she serious? The embarrassment I saw in myself was bravery in her eyes?
Feeling sheepish, I said, “I did a terrible job just now. My mind went blank, and I couldn’t remember anything. I was so dry and couldn’t think of the right words.”
“Speaking in public can be difficult for anyone, especially if English isn’t your first language. But you were courageous enough to come up here and give it a shot, which is more than many people can do. Just keep practicing and getting more comfortable with the setting, and you’ll get better in no time.”
A tall, thin man came over and added, “I thought you did great up there. You should come back and try again next time.”
While I had been upset about my embarrassing speech, they saw something else and even encouraged me.
I decided to believe them give this club a try.
A month later, I gave my first seven-minute speech. I had revised the script multiple times and had memorized it word for word. During the speech, I couldn’t bring myself to make eye contact with the audience, fearing that I would forget my lines. Instead, I focused on the white wall behind their heads. I felt unsure of what to do with my hands, so I let my instincts guide me.
After I finished my speech, the club members congratulated me on my successful first talk. While I knew I had a lot of room for improvement, their encouragement and practical advice gave me the confidence to continue. Surprisingly, I, a thin-skinned novice, even found myself looking forward to my next speech.
Over the next five or six years, I made an effort to attend the club every Tuesday. Gradually, I began evaluating others’ speeches and doing more impromptu short speeches. Along the way, I even won a few speech contests, mentored new members, and served as a club and community officer. When I first walked into the club, I never dared to imagine any of this.
• • •
Some time ago, I organized a small activity in my company’s project team, teaching the software engineers how to do take visual notes.
Before the activity, one of the engineers asked me in private if she could just observe and not participate, as she didn’t consider herself to be good at drawing. I reassured her that it was okay to just watch, but also encouraged her to give it a try, explaining that we would be starting with simple lines and shapes, and that there was no right or wrong way to do it.
When the activity began, I encouraged everyone to pick up their pens and start with simple lines. The hesitant Engineer also started drawing lines and adding some artistic flair to her lines and shapes. In every sharing session, I made sure to praise and highlight her work — she was actually very creative and talented.
After the activity, she expressed her surprise at how much she had enjoyed drawing. “I never thought I’d have fun doing this.”
Her words brought back memories of my own early days at the Toastmasters club.
• • •
When I was hesitant to present and nervous about speaking in front of an audience, the encouragement of others allowed me to see myself as a brave and confident speaker. Similarly, when I guided someone who was scared to draw, it helped them imagine themselves as someone who was confident enough to pick up a paintbrush.
It’s amazing how a little bit of imagination can make a big difference in our lives. When we imagine ourselves as stronger, better versions of ourselves, it gives us the courage and motivation to take on new challenges that we might have otherwise been too scared to face. Some people can do this on their own, while others need a supportive environment that encourages them to take risks and try new things.
I know firsthand how important it is to be in a supportive environment. In my personal and professional life, I have faced many challenges, and there were times when I felt like giving up. But with the help of others who believed in me, I was able to push through and overcome my doubts.
Now, I strive to create that same kind of supportive environment for others. When I see someone struggling, I offer them encouragement and guidance, so that they too can imagine themselves as stronger, better versions of themselves. And when I see them succeed, it gives me a sense of pride and fulfillment, knowing that I played a small part in their journey.
Check out my write-up in Chinese 《从不敢，到敢，可能只差一点想象》.