A keynote address by Brian Jenner at A Better Mi, Toastmasters International District 109 Conference at the Westin Hotel, Milan, Italy 13 May 2023

My name is Brian, and I’m afraid of public speaking.

(No response)

Well, that was an experiment. It didn’t work. But that must be because there can’t be that many recovering drug addicts or alcoholics in the audience.

Which is probably a good thing.

I’m so glad to be back in Milan. I was last here 35 years ago. Life was good. I was 18 and I’d passed all my exams. I was about to go to Oxford University. I had big dreams. Some teenagers want to become a rock star: I was different. I wanted to become a politician.

There were so many role models in my era: Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher.

Even then, I loved listening to their speeches.

I had a plan. I was going to join the Oxford Union Debating Society – one of the most prestigious debating societies in the whole world – where young students learn the trade of politics.

But when I got to Oxford it was far more daunting than I expected. They spoke to audiences of over 500 people. I saw Boris Johnson speak before he was famous.

I was daunted. I tried to speak a few times but it was too scary for me.

A few years later I left university but I still had my political ambitions. By then, I had a bigger problem.

I didn’t have a job.

My mother told me about Toastmasters. I wanted to join, but there was no club where I was living.

A couple of years later, I moved to London in search of a high-powered job. After I’d got a phone installed, my first step was to call up the membership secretary to ask if I could join the Grosvenor Square Toastmasters. He said they currently weren’t accepting any new members.

I was appalled. I had waited all this time. I had to beg him to let me come along as a guest. Again, I was in awe of the best speakers.

After several meetings I was asked if I wanted to do a table topic (an impromptu speech exercise).

I thought I’d be good at this with my education. I strode up to the front of them began speaking, but after 15 seconds my mind went blank. I had to stop apologise and sit down. Now you will know how sensitive and kind fellow Toastmasters are. I overheard one woman in the audience say under her breath, ‘It’s not that difficult.’

This humiliation made me want to throw all my energy into getting good at public speaking. I spent hours rewriting and writing my scripts. I remember sitting at home thinking this speech is hilarious they’ll be falling around with laughter at this.

Then when I go to the meeting, I’d deliver my speech and nobody would laugh. My mother was once in the audience and she reassured me that they were laughing – inwardly.

A few years later I got through several rounds of the humorous speech contest learning every word by heart. Whenever there was a passage that didn’t get a laugh, I’d rewrite it and relearn it for the next round.

When it came to the semi-finals I invited my friends along to watch. I told my first joke in the room roared with laughter. Then I couldn’t remember which script came next. I panicked. My friends said it was like looking at that Munch portrait The Scream.

But Toastmasters is not about winning competitions, it’s about professional development.

I was still struggling to find the job that I wanted. So I poured my energy into promoting my Toastmasters club.

I tried to bring friends in, but they just thought it was weird.

There was one person I met who also wanted to go into politics – a young woman called Liz,who asked me how she could improve her public speaking. We talked about using expensive professional training agencies, but I told her, no, go to Toastmasters, that’s the best way. And she did. I was getting into my late 20s by this stage.

One day I went to an interview and it was one of those roundtables where you had to sit with the other candidates and they asked you questions.

This time I could sense that my Toastmaster training really helped me. Sure enough, I finally landed a well-paid job in a big company.

Only after three months I was depressed, after six months I was clinically depressed, and after 20 months I was fired.

I’d reached a dead end. Then the Internet came along, and I decided to set myself up as a speechwriter.

It took a year and then I got a contract to work for the CEO of a big company. I loved it. I continued to look for this kind of work but it was a precarious living and I was in London – an expensive city. I was struggling to make progress.

Aged 35, I packed up all my worldly goods into the back of a van and I went to live in Bournemouth with my mother.

If you don’t know Bournemouth, it’s on the South Coast of England. It’s famous for two things: it’s where people go to retire, they say it’s a poor man’s Miami.

The second thing is, if you’re addicted to heroin or you’re an alcoholic, it’s where you go for rehab.

I saw this as an opportunity to restart my political career.

I could build a base. I joined a political party and it was full of pensioners. I remember they were talking about the European Union. At one of the meetings (this was around 2005) they said how much they disliked Europe.

Using my Toastmaster skills, I told them that I’d studied languages and I’d lived in Strasbourg. I was there when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 – it was a wonderful thing.

Our future was in Europe, I told them.

But they weren’t impressed.

They were never going to pick me as a candidate.

I realised I needed to form my own group to find like-minded people I came to the conclusion that I was a creative and unconventional person. I set up a group for creatives.

I was particularly interested in how creatives can use their talents to make a living. I borrowed some ideas from Toastmasters.

We had a speaker and we’d go around the room and ask everybody to tell us what their creative thing was. For example, you have a young woman who’s designing who wanted to design textiles but she was selling double glazing for the time being. Or a novelist who couldn’t get round to finishing his novel. The group was a success.

But they really disliked me for making them speak in public. People would say to me they wanted to come to my group, but they were put off by the public speaking. I didn’t get it. It was so useful to know what people in the room were doing.

There were some very strange people who came to the meetings.

I remembered when I was doing my promotion for Toastmasters, I’d written an article saying, ‘Toastmasters is Alcoholics Anonymous for people who are afraid of public speaking.’

The only problem was that I’d never been to Alcoholics Anonymous so how could I know? One of these guys invited me to go to a meeting.

It was then I hesitated. What if people think that I’m an alcoholic?

Anyway, I went and I can make some comparisons.

  • Their speeches are even more rambling and incoherent and the ones you get at Toastmasters.
  • They don’t do evaluations.
  • They’re very honest.

I got really interested in the dynamics of how it worked.

You notice is they tell stories about how they run out of money, how they went on binges that lasted several days, and then end up in prison.

And other people in the room are laughing. Not in a scornful way but identifying with their fellow addicts.

They say: ‘Humour is misery remembered in tranquility.’

But to get there, they’ve got to remember and share those stories with others.

That’s what they do: they share their stories of shame and guilt and they realise they’re not alone.

It’s this business of revealing yourself that’s important.

That’s what the creatives couldn’t stand, but the alcoholics have got to a point where they have no choice.

I didn’t know that doctors have been baffled by alcoholism for centuries, and then these guys in America had discovered that by telling their story to others they could prolong their sobriety.

It didn’t have much in effect on the membership – the listeners – but those who could give an account of their sufferings – and their discovery of a solution, managed to stay sober.

And the solution had something to do with public speaking.

Ralph Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters was on to something similar.

He set up an organisation, not for people who were good at something, but who shared a weakness. And by working together, they could overcome their weakness.

We’re not born whole.

Toastmasters face their fears. Alcoholics face their demons. That’s how we grow as human beings.

Last year, I was watching television and there was an election going on. My political friend Liz was taking part in it. At the beginning she was a long shot, but by the end of the summer, I realised that Liz was going to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

My first thought was:

That was supposed to be me.

My second thought was:

If you can’t achieve something yourself, maybe the next best thing is to have helped someone else, in some small way, to achieve their dream.

I did think it was wonderful that we had our first Prime Minister who was a graduate of Toastmasters.

It made me think that the outcome of our struggles is only revealed over time.

The alcoholics managed to redeem their memories of shame and guilt by putting them into stories that change their meaning. The bad experiences turned out to be steps on the path to redemption.

For years I thought learning to speak in public was taking me backwards. But those setbacks are the reason, why I am where I am today.

That’s the healing power of public speaking.

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