Communication and Leadership Skills

Member Interview: Paul Gilchrist

Meet our VP Education, Paul Gilchrist. Paul is one of our long-term members, mentors and leaders at Toastmasters St Kieran’s. His story will inspire anyone who is more comfortable with technology and systems than communicating and speaking. 

Many people are scared of public speaking, was that the case with you?

Well yes and no. I worked as an engineer in communications companies. That meant circuit diagrams, soldering irons and then software. They say that people who study engineering are introverts who think you can trust machines more than people, because machines always react in the same way when you do the same thing to them. They say engineers don’t understand people because you never know what they will do!

That was probably the case for me. My engineering course at university was a lot of fun, and I didn’t have to do many presentations, so public speaking wasn’t really an issue.

However, when you get into the real world of work, there are things called customers and they are hard to avoid, even for “backroom” engineers. Eventually customers say they don’t want to talk only to salespeople, they want to talk to the people who made the product.

I managed to “get by” with speaking on technical subjects, but it was always stressful, and I don’t think I was very good at keeping the audience excited.

There was one thing I remember someone saying in those days. He said “If anyone says they need someone to speak for the company, always be the first person to volunteer. No one else will want to do it, and it is always a good chance to get ahead in your career.” So even for introverted engineers, speaking is important!!

But you must have gone to training courses for speaking, didn’t you?

Oh yes, the companies I worked for provided courses on speaking, but frankly, they were not very good. I remember one which involved the trainer giving a half day presentation on public speaking techniques, then he told us that we all had to pick a subject and give a 20-minute speech at the following week.

You can imagine how that went!! A couple of days deciding what to talk about, then writing and practising the speech. On the day, no one on the course wanted to be the next one to volunteer to give their speech. Not surprisingly, my speech didn’t go very well, and I went away thinking I had gone backwards if anything. I had not learned much, and I felt even more negative about my ability to speak in front of people.

So, why did you join Toastmasters?

Well, it was partly because of necessity and partly from luck.

I started doing some teaching and that was a whole new ball game of speaking. An audience of engineers isn’t too hard. They aren’t too worried about being bored, provided they are learning something relevant. But you have to work to keep the attention of school children.

Then came the luck. Three people I knew told me independently about Toastmasters, and then I drove past a banner in the street about Toastmasters. So, I knew I had to give it a try and I went to a presentation they advertised about starting the St Kieran’s club. I signed up on the spot.

I have never regretted it, except that I should have done it years ago. There are two big differences between Toastmasters and the professional speaking courses I had done before:

1.You don’t have to give a 20-minute speech as soon as you join. Everyone gets a chance to talk at each meeting, even if it is only for a couple of minutes. Sure, sometimes it goes “wrong”, but often it goes well. After a while, you remember the good ones and your confidence grows from the good experiences. Then when you are ready, you can give longer speeches. One thing Toastmasters is really good at is getting rid of nervousness. If someone asks a room full of people to stand up and speak, you can guarantee the person who has been to Toastmasters will be the first to volunteer!!

2.Help from the other members. At the professional course, there is one teacher, but at Toastmasters, everyone there will help you. Everyone has slightly different experience of speaking and you are sure to find something useful for you.

The other thing I found is that you meet quality people at Toastmasters. They all have a desire to improve and they have done something about it.

I have been at the St Kieran’s club since it started, about 14 years ago now. The only regret I have is that I didn’t join a club sooner!