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A fear worse than death?

Photo courtesy of Mike Flam

Photo courtesy of Mike Flam

More than 10 years ago, I started developing a new skill…

Little did I know that it would have such a big influence on my life. Without it, I wouldn’t have the confidence to stand on stage nor would I have started Curious Courses.

It is said that the fear of public speaking is a fear often considered worse than death for most people.

More than 10 years ago, I joined Toastmasters International, a non profit organisation dedicated to improving public speaking and leadership skills.

It all started back in London, I was telling my aunty that I hated doing presentations and my stomach would do backflips every time I had to stand up and speak. She suggested I join Toastmasters. I never found (nor made) the time to start whilst I was in London, so when I came to Zurich and a colleague told me about a new club starting, I took the chance and went to the first meeting of the Mosquito Hill Toastmasters Club in Zurich.

Here are a few things that I remember as my first impressions from the club.

I remember having to introduce myself as a guest and not being able to hold my water glass afterwards because I was shaking like a leaf from nerves.

I remember being both impressed and intimidated by how structured and organised it all was.

I also remember how kind and supportive everyone even though I was such a beginner.

It scared me absolutely sh*tless, but I decided to return 2 weeks later, then another 2 weeks later… but why?

What have I learnt?

When you get more involved with Toastmasters, you find that you can grow in more ways than just public speaking. For example, you get to learn about leadership (and gentle arm-twisting) with committee roles or play with your stage presence (or fright) in speaking competitions.

But that’s when you want to go deeper, first let me share what I have learnt about speaking:-

Practice, practice, practice. You start honing your skills. At the beginning, I just wanted to survive standing in front of an audience, nowadays, when I give a speech, I want to be articulate, get my message across in both content and performance and make an impact. These skills apply whether you work in a company, have your own business or communicate in any way.

Like when you sign up for a gym, only if you go and actually exercise will you see results. I see that in myself that if I do not exercise, I feel rusty. Also, the more I train my speaking biceps, the less scary it becomes. Although I still feel the nerves, I no longer shake like I did at that first meeting. Phew!

The value of feedback. You receive a lot of feedback. Where else in life is someone going to tell you they counted you saying 15 “Ers” and “Ums” in a minute’s speech? How do people see you? How can you improve? It’s all given in a constructive way to help you become aware of what you are saying and doing.

Unleash your creativity. You get to write about any subject under the sun. 5 to 7 minutes is not long, so you need to get your message over in a short period of time ideally in a coherent way. Over the years, I’ve written all sorts, from my favourite bedtime story, Edmund Hillary on the first Everest climb, to how to make the perfect mashed potatoes :-)

Toastmasters is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to learn. It’s not just about creating speeches; you also get to dive into other people’s worlds learning from their perspective, knowledge and experiences.

Helping others and community. You contribute to others’ development by giving them feedback and support. It’s amazing to see how people improve. I’ve seen people having stage fright and not being able to utter a single word, only to see them later on, in full control and enjoying themselves.

The Toastmaster community is incredibly supportive because everyone’s there to learn and grow. As it’s a worldwide organisation, any major city you visit has a good chance of having a welcoming Toastmaster club.

If you would like to visit a club in Switzerland, check out the Swiss Toastmasters site. At the time of writing, there are 3 English speaking and 2 German speaking clubs in Zurich. Otherwise, go to the main Toastmasters International site.

You can always visit a club as a guest and I recommend visiting a few to see which suits you best as each has different members, culture, venue, food and schedules, etc.

So, if you have ever been curious about Toastmasters, don’t just take my word for it, go visit a club and see for yourself.


If you would like to know what a meeting actually involves, read on… otherwise you can stop here.

The nuts and bolts of Toastmasters

Meeting schedules may vary from club to club.

The first half of our club meeting has prepared speeches and the second half has “table topics” and evaluations. There are a number of supporting roles which are Toastmaster of the Evening, Table Topics Master, General Evaluator, Speech Evaluators, Grammarian, Timer, Ah and Vote Counter and Listener giving as many people as possible a chance to speak.

Prepared Speeches

When you join the club as a new member, you receive a manual, which has 10 speeches with different objectives, for example vocal variety or body language. You can write your speech on any subject you like (except religion, politics or sex). The speeches are around 5 to 7 minutes long. You receive a lot of feedback as each speech has an evaluator plus the audience has feedback forms.

Table Topics

In the Table Topics section, the Table Topics Master selects a theme for the evening and then asks a question, any question :-) and then chooses someone from the audience to answer it. That person has 1 to 2 minutes to speak about this topic. Talk about spontaneous!


At the end of the evening, the evaluation team gives their reports on the meeting’s proceedings. As an example, one part of the Ah and Vote counter’s job is to listen to the number of “Ers”, “Umms” and any filler words that are used. At the end of the evening, they inform the group how many such words were used. Often when we are speaking, we do not realise we are “er and umming”, so once we become aware, we’re able to catch ourselves from doing it further.


6 Responses to A fear worse than death?

  1. Jena Griffiths at 8:35 pm #

    Great post Selina,

    I have been meaning to join for years. You have just inspired me to actually quit making excuses and show up!

    Thanks for writing this very informative piece,

    • Selina at 10:07 am #

      Great, look forward to hearing about your experiences Jena. Maybe I will see you there :-)

  2. Niall Doherty at 5:05 am #

    Nice article, Selina! I’m glad I got to go to a meeting while in Zurich. Toastmasters really is such a great organization. I’ve gotten so much out of it.

    • Selina at 10:08 am #

      Thanks Niall, yes, I remember you blogging about humorous speech competition. That was amazing!

  3. Milena at 2:49 pm #

    Thanks for the informative post, Selina. I’ve heard of Toastmasters, but never knew exactly what it entailed. It sounds like a great place to learn speaking skills and many other things. When I know that I will be in Zurich more regularly, I will give it a try.

    • Selina at 4:06 pm #

      Glad it could help Milena. Yes, when you are in Zurich, do check one of the clubs out.

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