Outside of evaluations and presentations of grammarian reports, table topic subjects, and thoughts of the day, I haven’t given a formal Toastmasters “prepared” (or, in this case today, “premeditated”) speech since Eric’s birth….six months ago. I earned my Competent Communicator distinction in June, Eric was born in early August, I came back to our club in November, and now it is February. I flirted with signing myself up—or asking Bob Freel to sign me up, since he puts together the schedule—but I kept hesitating from sheer nerves. It is hard, often, to make ourselves seek out challenge for challenge sake, to know we could fail or embarrass ourselves but to try anyway.

Then, thankfully, Bob went ahead and put me on the schedule for this week. It was the gentle nudge I needed to get back into the game fully.

My first project in my new “Specialty Speeches” advanced manual was to “speak off-the-cuff,” and my assignment was to bring in five topics to my evaluator, let her (Kathy Lynch, in this case) select one before the meeting, and prepare the speech while sitting in the meeting.

The first challenge, for me, was to think of my topics. What do I know about? Friends and colleagues offered several good suggestions, some of which combined well with experiences and philosophies that are genuinely me. I began to see how my life has pattern to it: there are themes that run throughout many of my decisions, patterns to my interpretations of events. If anything, this assignment was good for a little soul-searching.

John Richardson, a Distinguished Toastmaster and author of the blog Success Begins Today, had a good recommendation that he has shared with us: make a commitment to write every day. He is the author of The Path of Consequence, which explores the themes of finding our true natures and which inspired me to make deeper connections with myself and others. He was completely correct: although not every part of our daily writing is golden or usable, often we find fodder there for speeches, for truths, for perhaps greater works in the future. I had been a little distant from my daily writing, but I made a commitment to myself about a month ago to return to it. A good thing, too: I was able to draw on some of my past and recent blogs for this assignment, looking for where my ideas overlapped and began to form the pattern of a speech or three or five.

Once I had some topics, though, the next challenge was this: let go. It isn’t possible to prepare five speeches, memorize, and rehearse them. Okay, it is possible, but not desirable nor the point of this speech project. Back in high school, I probably would have tried to do the assignment this way because I was a perfectionist and had a skewed idea of what that even meant. First of all, I am far from perfect; and secondly, true joy comes not from trying vainly for what we cannot be, but in embracing ourselves for better or worse and speaking our truths. There is no way, also, that with two small children I could have written and prepped five speeches. Especially not with all our Valentine’s Day activities, too. I had to let go… not try overmuch to control this one.

What I discovered was this: even though I was still nervous today, I was far less nervous than walking into the meeting with a fully written, prepared, and memorized speech. Speaking off-the-cuff, as it turns out, frees me from the stress of worrying about missing a line or stumbling. It quiets the perfectionist in me: there’s no room for her here. Truly, though, this speech was not totally extemporaneous. Because I made the five topic cards, I of course had two weeks to think about all of them and to gather my thoughts. It’s not like I was asked to speak off-the-cuff about the history of trains today, or anything totally, totally obscure (to me).

I got a glimpse today of what the pros in our club—John, Jeanne, Steve, Bob, and more—must have known for a long time: when you do let go and speak about what you truly know, there is an opportunity to speak from a more conversational, authentic place. Yes, it is still a performed speech, but a new kind of confidence has the chance to develop. I felt so much more at ease than I thought I would feel today, like I had the chance to talk with my friends. It felt good to get back up there today. It was honoring to win the “best speaker” prize today, when Jerone Lee or Bob could have easily claimed it. I choose never to vote for Best Speaker when I have given one of the speeches…yet it would have been a toss up between the two of them. Bob went over the time limit and got beeped out, but I found his speech extremely humorous and engaging today.

So today I learned that there can be confidence and joy in letting go… My next project in my manual is to “uplift the spirit.” The one after that is a “dramatic reading.” Time to start thinking!