Gulp! How to survive public speaking and live to tell about it

With help from Toastmasters, Johns Hopkins faculty and staff are honing their presentation skills

Imagine driving home from a long tiring day at work. It's late and just starting to get dark. You pass through a long curve in the road and suddenly a deer appears in the middle of the road.

Now imagine being the deer.

That is how Jim Brasic felt when he was giving one of the most important presentations of his career. "In 2003, I was giving a talk in front of an important neuropsychiatrist who came to Hopkins. It was an important meeting because I was speaking in front of a group of 40 fellow professors and scientists, and I put a lot of effort into the presentation," Brasic says. "I was so anxious and intimidated during my talk that I had a memory lapse. I just went completely blank and had the feeling that a deer has when it is in the middle of the road."

As an assistant professor of radiology in the School of Medicine, Brasic was used to speaking in front of groups of students, but giving speeches or presentations was an entirely different matter.

"I had given talks in the past where I invited people to interrupt me if they had questions," Brasic says. "Some people really distracted me, and it got under my skin. I had the impression that people were giving me a hard time by asking questions and interrupting. I was unreasonably sensitive to questions and thought that I was being harassed."

Until that time, Brasic had thought he was a good public speaker. He ultimately realized he was terrified of it and avoided engagements, both professionally and socially, where he had to talk to people. Recognizing that he needed help, Brasic joined the Hopkins Toastmasters Club in February 2004 to overcome his fears. Club members work through manuals for different levels, from Competent Communicator to the Advanced Communication Series. These programs include speaking projects in which everyone can practice his skills. Group members listen to speeches by their peers and evaluate them with positive and constructive feedback.

Club members take on different roles during the meetings. The "toastmaster" functions as the master of ceremonies, introducing the speakers and providing context on the topic being discussed. Others are timers, "um" and "err" counters, evaluators, prepared speakers, and impromptu speakers.

Completing the course work for each series allows members to earn various awards. Brasic has earned some of the highest titles achievable, namely the Advanced Communicator–Gold and Competent Leader awards. He is currently working on the requirements for the Advanced Leader–Silver recognition as well as a second Advanced Communicator–Gold award.

Toastmasters also participate in success/leadership and success/communication programs, which help members advance in public speaking achievements. Experienced toastmasters can serve as mentors, helping others prepare their speeches and guiding newbies as they learn to become better public speakers.

"The Toastmasters are my friends," Brasic says. "These people want to see me succeed. They want me to express myself in an effective way, with valuable words. It's like addressing a group of your closest friends. They want to help me and see me give a good speech."

The Hopkins Toastmasters Club, an affiliate of Toastmasters International, has also helped Brasic in his leadership ability. He served as vice president of the club for one year, president for two years, and Area 62 governor. In his role as governor, he directed and judged speaking contests and was the district chair for Areas 61 to 63 (Maryland, Northern Virginia, and Delaware).

"The Toastmasters Club has helped me develop an ability to speak confidently," he says. "I now feel like I can speak to any person at any time."

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