Seventeen years ago, I became the president of my community association. It was a lively organization with scores of activist members who were busy gentrifying an inner city neighborhood. One of my responsibilities was to deliver a monthly speech and conduct a formal meeting with a loud and raucous crowd.
Over the course of my two year stint, I always spoke from behind the lectern with my hands firmly attached to the sides in a white knuckle grip as I read from my notes. When my term ended, I felt that I might have been a more effective leader if I had some real speaking skills, and if I wasn’t so afraid of being in front of an audience.
So, I joined a Toastmaster’s club and began my training as a public speaker. A year later, I had completed ten speeches and the basic program, but I was still firmly attached to both the lectern and my notes. My mentors encouraged me to work without notes and to move away from the lectern. “At least stand to one side of it!” they cajoled. But I was not about to leave my comfort zone. I was plenty uncomfortable just giving a speech. Besides no one could see my legs shaking behind the lectern.
Then the club held a speech contest. A humorous speaking contest. Now, I can tell jokes, so I was game! Four of us entered the competition, and I managed to win the third place ribbon without venturing an inch beyond the safety of the lectern. I can’t recall who placed second, but I’ll never forget the winner. Les Satterfield talked about an airplane flight and he soared about the room with his arms spread wide and the audience roared in laughter at his comic yarn. Later on, as I watched him receive his shiny gold statuette for first place, I knew I had to have one. I was motivated ... but not quite enough.
The next contest was for a motivational speech. Once again, I sought refuge behind the lectern. I managed to win the second place ribbon, but the gold went to Doris Posey who moved about the room and interacted with the audience.
I finally took first place with the Tall Tales contest. I wrote my speech then practiced, practiced, practiced. On the day of the competition—I did it—I stepped out from behind the lectern! I told how I would pretend to be Tom Hanks' younger brother whenever I flew first class, and how much fun it was to fool my fellow passengers, that was until the time I sat next to his mother.
I loved the recognition that came with that first place trophy. It motivated me to go further; and forced me to get better. In order to win at higher levels within Toastmasters, I had to develop excellent speaking and speech-writing skills.
I went on to win 13 contests. Years later, when I was hired to give my first professional speech, I wondered whether or not I was truly worthy of getting paid to speak. As I began to have doubts, I looked at those 13 gold trophies in my office bookcase. They represented the acknowledgment that I was indeed worthy.
A few years ago, I visited successful professional speaker, David Greenberg, in his home. I smiled in understanding as I saw, prominently displayed in his living room, several Toastmaster contest trophies.
Recognition doesn’t have to be tangible to be effective. A clap on the back, a verbal “Good Job!” in front of peers and co-workers, or a blurb in the company newsletter works too. Even so, nothing works quite as long or as powerfully as something hard and shiny with a name engraved on it. However, you don’t want someone resting on their laurels; to keep them motivated, put a date on those plaques and trophies. Then encourage them to renew it every year.
Robert Evans Wilson Jr. is a motivational speaker and humorist. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. For more information on Robert's programs please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.