Four years ago I had never even heard of Toastmasters, which is odd since I’ve been a bit of a lifelong information/trivia junkie and I also won 2 speech contests as a 16 year old.  Likely, the odd path I trod as an adult kept that very mainstream information from me.

It was 4 years ago that my husband Lloyd came home and told me that his boss Eric, was going to join TM.  He told me that it was a public speaking club and that knowing me, I would probably enjoy it.  I was the mom of a 2 year old Tasmanian Devil at the time and had very little adult contact living out in the bush. My best friend had moved away so I was dying for something to get the wheels in my brain turning again and to meet some new people outside of church.

The first meeting I went to was exciting and nerve-wracking.  I remember feeling very proud that I’d been able to say something clever without making a fool of myself.  I also felt incredibly intimidated.  The people at this meeting were the movers and shakers of our little community- the assistant publisher of the local paper, a life coach, a successful entrepreneur, a retired teacher,  the manager of the fish hatchery and so on.  I was a stay at home mom with no post-secondary education and a very questionable past.  I wasn’t sure I belonged there.

I was welcomed warmly and encouraged.  I was mentored by the club President Margaret Page, a dynamic woman who scared the daylights out of me with her confidence and ambition.  It took me 3 months of agonizing about what I would share with these virtual strangers but I finally wrote my Icebreaker. Here’s my first line:

“Fellow Toastmasters and honoured guests, my name is Paula Howley and I’m an alcoholic.  (pause)  Sounds like I got my meetings mixed up, doesn’t it?”

(I remember being really surprised that nobody laughed at the second line.  I thought, and still think it’s bloody hilarious.)

The day I gave that speech, my stomach turned over like a hamster wheel all day long.  I spent half the day in the bathroom.  My heart pounded so hard in the minutes before they called my name, I thought I might pass out.  But something kind of cool began to happen in the middle of my speech.  I was enjoying myself!

That night, my evaluator was Cathie Roy, the assistant publisher of the paper.  I will never forget what she told me because it changed the way I thought about myself from then on

She had been a Toastmaster for 23 years at this point and told me that it was the best Icebreaker she had ever heard.  She thanked me for my courage and honesty and encouraged me to discard the intimidation I’d been feeling.

A new woman was born that day, truly.  And I embraced Toastmasters with the vigour of a new lover.  I loved the process of crafting a speech, of finding the most beautiful words, the right words, the TIMING of it all…the delivery, the connection with the audience….the LAUGHS.

What I didn’t expect was how much it would change my thought processes, the way I thought about myself and my future, my abilities.  With every speech, every evaluation of another speech, I knew more, I grew more.  I dared more.

In the fall of 2009, I had been with Toastmasters for a year and took on my first role in the club executive as VP membership.  In my new enthusiasm, I took home a few DVD’s from our club’s resource catalogue.  THIS was my first encounter with greatness.

I watched DVD’s entitled “Toastmasters’ Greatest Speakers in their Greatest Moments”.  It was so exciting to see that level of speaker.  It stirred something inside of me.   Something…. a little voice that had not existed a year before, said “You can do that.” And I knew it was true.

And then I watched Darren LaCroix.

You have to know a little more about my background before I tell you about this encounter.  I have been a lifelong comedy afficianado.  I’ve been making people laugh and loving it since I can remember.  At one point, I even had 10 minutes of material together and was ready to take it to amateur night at Yuk-Yuk’s….. when I let a man get in the way.  By the time I got him OUT of the way, there was no way I’d be getting my way anytime soon.  Still, the bottom line is, I know funny, and I know it well.  My parents are British and I’m Canadian.  Comedy pedigrees don’t get any better than that.

So when I watched Darren LaCroix’s 2001 World Championship winning speech “Ouch!”, I was watching one of the few perfect things in the world.  That speech had everything, it was a work of genius as far as I’m concerned.  And what REALLY impressed me was in the DVD later, he spoke about how the idea for the speech came to him at MASS.  He was a Mass-attending Catholic boy.

Suddenly, I knew that God was giving me the ok.  I COULD be funny without swearing or rolling in the mud like a pig.  It was not only possible, it could be BEAUTIFUL and INSPIRING as God showed me through Darren’s speech.

That fall, I competed in my first Humorous Speech contest and won at the club level.  I felt like I had won the World Championship and it opened my eyes to the next levels of competition.  In the Spring of 2010, I made it to the Division level with my Evaluation Speech and took 3rd place in the Table Topics at Division in the fall of 2010.

In the Spring of 2011, I was ready to get down to business and had my International Speech ready for competition.  Of course I came down with flu and did not compete.

By the time the Humorous speech contest rolled around in fall 2011, I was chomping at the bit.   That year, I won club, Area and to my breathless delight, Division.  I was going to the “big show”, the District 21 finals- all of B.C.

I gave my speech”Mad Maureen and the Monarch of Mercy” and had an absolute BLAST.  I LOVED it.  I never had so much fun in my life with my clothes on and  I took THIRD PLACE.  Walking on clouds, I don’t think I ever felt so high in my life.

Another life-changing moment happened to me there.  Jamie MacDonald, 2 time semi-finalist and one time finalist at the World Championships came up to me after the competition and congratulated me.  He asked me “Have you ever thought about the International Competition?”  “I have.”  I said.

“Well I think you have what it takes to get there, and when you do, I’d be happy to help you out.”

Have you ever had a moment in your life where everything shifted up a gear?  Well, this was where my life popped into fourth.  A world class speaker had just told me that he thought I could do what HE had done and again, it changed the way I looked at myself, my future, my abilities.  It changed EVERYTHING.

And so this past spring, I wanted to make District so bad I thought I was going to make myself SICK.  And I did make it.  And I didn’t win.  The winner, Carol Carter was so good that I knew she had won as soon as she had finished.  I was pretty crushed but the truth is, I didn’t deserve it and wasn’t ready.

The best thing that came out of that conference for me was meeting Darren LaCroix.  What Darren gave me at the Conference was another game changer for me.  And it’s one I’m going to save for a day when you and I know each other a little better.  Good night and God bless.