By Clodagh Phelan
When they hear the words Toastmasters International most people immediately think of after dinner speaking, but this is not the whole story.
In the words of Ralph C. Smedley, who founded Toastmasters in 1924,”Ours is the only organization I know dedicated to the individual; we work together to bring out the best in each of us and then we apply these skills to help others.” Through its member clubs, Toastmasters helps people learn the arts of speaking, listening and thinking. The mission of a Toastmasters Club is to provide a mutually supportive environment, in which every member has the opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills. This in turn fosters self-confidence and personal growth. Early Birds Speakers is an outstanding member of this worldwide organisation. About to enter its eighth year, it is a remarkable club, characterised by its warmth, professionalism, inclusivity and adventurous spirit. Early Birds are incredibly proud of their club. Proud to be selected and to belong to ‘The best Toastmasters Club in the world’. A title recognised not just by its enthusiastic members but also in the wider Toastmasters community. It is no exaggeration to state that Early Birds Speakers has changed peoples’ lives. Our slogan, ‘the club that means business’, only tells part of the story. There’s so much more to the club than learning to speak comfortably in public and improving business opportunities. Friendship, fun, a community, a family – these are great additional benefits that many members hadn’t expected to find.
The Birth of Early Birds Speakers
When Hilary Briggs left the corporate sector to set up her own business, she decided that holding seminars would be a good way to network and to find clients. However, she didn’t just want to give seminars, she wanted to give excellent seminars. Subsequent experience in academia and at various networking groups taught her that the standard of presentations was not good. An academic colleague recommended she read Tom Peter’s Brand you 50. The chapter entitled Great Speechifying has, like all the chapters, an action checklist. The checklist reads ‘1. Join Toastmasters. 2. Join Toastmasters. 3. Join Toastmasters.’ So she did. At that stage, Hilary already had a fair amount of public speaking experience but she wanted to get even better. You’ll find this theme running throughout the history of Early Birds Speakers – always wanting to get better. After some searching in phone directories and the Yellow Pages – Google being just a twinkle on the web at that stage – Hilary founded Grosvenor Square Speakers. She joined in February 2001. By July that year she was Vice President, Education. The following year, 2002, she became their President and in 2003 their Immediate Past President. During her journey in Toastmasters she heard about people starting new clubs. It sounded really daunting; she put it to the back of her mind. That was until the District Conference in Clonakilty, Ireland, in November 2004, when she was inspired by a workshop led by the Immediate Past District Governor, Jeremiah Ronayne. That’s how Early Birds was conceived. Hilary knew that many people preferred morning meetings to those held in the evenings. Her experience at BNI (Business Networking International) proved that there was no shortage of people who were prepared to get up really early – BNI meetings begin at 6.45!That, coupled with the fact that there was an obvious need to improve the standard of public speaking, was her motivation.
One step forward, two steps back
The original intention was to launch the new club in the Spring/Summer session of 2005. Various obstacles caused delays so the start was moved to the October of that year. In the meantime, Hilary had approached David Thompson, the District Governor at the time, through whom she became involved with a start-up club, Canary Wharf Communicators. This proved to be of great benefit. It not only gave her ideas but also showed her the type of problem she might face in setting up a new club. The first meeting of Early Birds Speakers took place in October 2005 with Hilary as President. Some of those who helped the fledgling club leave the nest were Teresa Dukes and Shaun Curry, Olga Smith and other members of Grosvenor Square Speakers. Some of Hilary’s BNI contacts and students from a course she was running at City University were also involved. To achieve Charter status a club needs at least 20 members, 17 of which must be new to Toastmasters. The club would almost reach a membership of 20 but it took the loss of only a few members to put it back to square one. It was one step forward and two back. Consequently, a further 18 months elapsed before the club was awarded its Charter, in June 2007. Hilary continued as President for 2007/8 and handed over to Roger Harding for 2008/9, though she was still very much engaged.
Many people contributed to the setting up and development of Early Birds Speakers. Some of the original Charter members are still members or have only recently left the club. Hilary herself, George Metcalfe, Michael Arnold, Tony Duff, Wayde Duncan-Smith and Ed Tremayne. A full list of the founder members is attached to this history. However, in any discussion about Early Birds Speakers, one name crops up time and time again. Roger Harding. Without in any way detracting from the contributions of others, there is no doubt of the role Roger played in establishing a club that is considered to be perhaps the most professional club in the Toastmaster family. Early Birds Speakers had been well organised right from the outset. Roger built on these foundations. He took over from Hilary as President in June 2008 and announced his vision for the club – growth. At that point there were only 26 members. By rigorous discipline and selection Roger, acting both as President and Vice President, Membership, imposed a disciplined attitude to attendance and punctuality. He encouraged enthusiastic and committed members and discouraged those who were there to take but not to give. He instigated a recruitment campaign. By the end of the year the club had 40 members. Not long after that there were 50 – with a waiting list. All that said, it’s not just founders, presidents and leadership teams that create and form a successful club. One of the striking things about Early Bird Speakers is the amount of members who are willing to give their time and energy, often quietly and unobtrusively. Lesley Lear made the Timekeeper’s flags. Lee Williams made and printed the meeting signs. Lander Lopez coded the guest name badge maker. Roger Harding designed and built the first set of remote controlled Timekeeper’s lights and Neil Coleman the second set. Down the years, countless people have helped out. Whether doing the catering at club events, organising venues and parties or always being willing to stand in at the last minute. And indeed bringing visitors along to further enrich the club.
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
Hilary and the fledgling membership experienced a steep learning curve, especially in the very early years. It is one thing to attract new members; training up committee members and building a leadership team is something else again. Not everyone on the team had, or indeed has, committee experience and people have their own views as to how things should be done. Initially it was a bit all over the place. Things improved when Hilary set up a system of emails and follow up phone calls. The administration improved even more with the implementation of Club Plan and subsequently Easy Speak. These two pieces of software allow the Vice President, Education, and other club officers to schedule meetings, track member performance, capture the details of guests and complete all the many, varied tasks that fall to the leadership team. Charter clubs elect their presidents for one year only. As she was the founder of this club, both before the Charter was granted and from 2007 when it was awarded, Hilary’s term as President ran, effectively, for two and a half years. There was a lesson there too. She soon appreciated the reason for the one-year rule. It stops people getting burnt out, allows the input of fresh ideas, enables team members to develop and prevents people becoming entrenched. Apart from an initial hiccough, Early Birds Speakers has observed the one-term rule and is the stronger for it.
A survey in 2013 reported, “British people have declared that the only thing worse than being forced to speak in public is losing a loved one.” Glossophobia, speech anxiety, can affect up to 75% of the population. Even more, depending on what paper you are reading. In answer to the question “Why did you first come along to Early Birds Speakers?” more than fifty per cent referred to that anxiety. Some spoke of a fear that rendered them literally speechless. Others used words like ‘terrified’ and ‘paralysis’. Besides the wish to conquer the fear were other motives, such as the desire to overcome a stutter or the realisation that reluctance to give presentations was impeding their career. More positive motivations included the wish to improve speaking skills or spoken English and to gain confidence. Not a few people were inspired by colleagues who were already members. Although some of our members are also members of other clubs, the fact that Early Birds is a morning meeting was a big attraction for many. For some it gets the day off to a good start, yet they can still be at work on time. For others the bonus was giving a speech first thing so they could get it out of the way, instead of having it hangover them all day like a dark cloud. Some of our members have stressful jobs and work long hours. In those circumstances having a night free is essential; by attending a morning meeting they get the best of both worlds.
Browns, breakfast and beyond
Breakfast is an important element in Early Birds meetings. After all, if you’ve been up with the lark you’re more than ready for breakfast by nine. Not to mention the opportunities for socialising and networking. As a member of Grosvenor Square Speakers, Hilary had been aware that very few people could make the trek across the square for coffee. So, right from the start of Early Birds, she made sure to always have coffee and pastries at the venue itself, a rather dingy basement at the New Cavendish Club. However, the New Cavendish Club did lay on a really good breakfast upstairs. A group of members, led by George Metcalfe, started to stay on, on a regular basis. Some even stayed for lunch! Nothing lasts forever though. When the New Cavendish Club put up their fees, in 2009, Roger led the vanguard in finding another venue. He found Browns Brasserie in St Martin’s Lane. A truly fitting meeting place. It was there that the breakfast tradition really took off as, after the meeting, everyone could amble down to the restaurant and carry on from there. At Browns, the meetings were held in three beautiful old courtrooms, two of which were still dominated by the judge’s mahogany bench and throne. Courtroom 1, a huge room with excellent acoustics, was usually decked out with large, circular tables, which gave the impression of speaking at an after dinner event. Courtroom 2 was medium sized. Courtroom 3, at the very top of the building, was by far the smallest. It was somewhat intimidating. Everybody had to cram in and there was no space whatever between the speaker and the audience. Browns was a fantastic venue and this made a huge difference to the membership numbers. During this phase Early Birds Speakers began to meet weekly instead of fortnightly. Membership increased from 28 to 50 with an overflowing waiting list; these would-be members now called Aspiring Members. In 2010 a change of management at Browns meant that the club was on the move again. George Metcalfe to the rescue. We had looked at various venues in the Covent Garden area, which was where we wanted to be. Several options had already been mooted when George, a Mason, came up with our current home, the splendid and inspiring Freemason’s Hall. If you give your first speeches in such grand, imposing rooms you are prepared for anything. Sadly, there is no facility for breakfast at this venue. However, situated in the middle of Covent Garden as we are, we are spoilt for choice. Patisserie Valerie in Long Acre was our hangout for several years. Early in 2014 we flirted with Café Rouge on Kingsway and are currently settled at the Lowlander in Drury Lane.
Back in 2005, the very first Early Birds speaker was Olga Smith, who gave speech No. 6 from the Competent Communication manual. Since then we’ve had every topic under the sun including bears, bees, umbrellas and exploding dumplings. We’ve had dances and demonstrations. We’ve had singing. People standing on chairs and lying on the floor. Puppets and polo mallets. Even someone striding into the room bearing a lance. Several times speakers have had to struggle gamely on as building work took place all around. On one notable occasion speeches were interrupted by workmen drilling on the roof. Indeed there was a time, mercifully long gone, when the national anthem of the Toastmaster’s country was sung before the meeting. All meetings begin with Table Topics –impromptu speeches. In the early days members and guests were asked if they would be willing to take part. These days no one is asked beforehand; there is no time for preparation. You only know the topic when your name is called. It’s a really effective introduction to public speaking. Terrifying? Certainly. Invaluable? Definitely. It’s like being thrown in the deep end. And it works. Indeed one member told me that he’d been so petrified that he’d entered a Table Topics contest, to force himself out of his comfort zone. And found that, in contrast, doing a normal table topic was relatively easy. The table topics for each meeting are chosen by the Table Topics Master of the day. And there seems to be no end to the imaginative and creative ideas they come up with. Picking out just a few from the many, we had Dexter Coles convincing us that Michael Jackson is not dead, Reece Howes having to use the word ‘watermelon’ while talking about the driving test and Beader Blunn setting the test of miming an acceptance speech. Lesley Lear and David Marks debated who should jump first from a hot air balloon, while Michael Mentessi tried to explain why he was in bed with the window cleaner.
“They will never forget how you made them feel.”
We all have our memorable and uplifting moments. For some, it’s seeing others progress from their Icebreaker speech to their tenth speech and so achieve Competent Communicator status – both rites of passage. For others, individual speeches have made a lasting impression. With more than seven years’ history behind us, it’s difficult not only to remember but also to single out any particular speech or contest entry. Everybody stands out for a different reason. From the plethora of brilliant and moving speeches mentioned by members, there’s only room here for a few. Thus Ben Taylor’s In praise of Early Birds. Erica Crump’s mesmerising talk about bees. For some Josh Lui’s The greatest lie I ever told is the real stand out. For others it’s Richard’s nudist story or Iain Scott’s ‘heartbeat’ speech or his graphic anti-smoking speech. Tony Duff’s Bear and the Hunter had everyone doubled up with laughter. As did Raja Shankaran speaking on Politicians and prostitutes. Some speeches were notable for other reasons, such as Bianca Tait using naughty words in the wonderful The things children say or Dele pleading for The last giraffe. Everyone has a favourite story or speaker. The glory of our club is that there is so much wealth and richness; too much to include it all in a short history such as this.
“The primary goal in entering a contest is to grow.”
Like evaluations, contests lie at the heart of Toastmasters activity. From the outset, Hilary was determined that Early Bird members would enter contests; she arranged it so that each one takes up an entire meeting. This is unique to our club. Initially, getting people to take part was like pulling teeth. However, Hilary had set up the structure to facilitate contest entry thus making it easy for members to take part. After she stepped down as president, Roger picked up the baton and pushed forward with it. Early Birds members have enthusiastically entered all the different contests. Starting with the International Speech Contest and the Evaluation Contest in 2009 and the Humorous Speech Contest and the Table Topics Contest in 2010. The tradition continued in subsequent years with many of our speakers going on to the area heats and even Division. Bob Griffiths, George Metcalfe, Loreen McKellar and David Marks in 2011. Richard and Aaron Wood in 2012. Paul Thomas, Iain Scott, Yuki Tokeshi, Tazud Miah and Ian Hawkins in 2013. Sudeshna Choudhury in 2014. The highest place ever attained in the history of the club was achieved in 2013 when Ian Hawkins was placed third in the whole of the UK and Ireland.
“Early Birds is addictive, like drugs, but in a good way.”
While it is first and foremost about public speaking, our club has always been much more than that. When talking to members, words that came up time and time again were friendship, support, family and community. People spoke of the warmth, the energy and the opportunity to improve in an atmosphere of shared understanding and honest evaluation. Our members appreciate the generosity and bravery of their fellow Early Birds in sharing their personal stories. They value each other for their amazing qualities as human beings. They love the opportunity to share experiences with people from an extraordinarily wide range of backgrounds, sometimes with wildly different worldviews, yet all getting along despite these divergent opinions. Members enjoy the social part of the club, the opportunity to meet new people. And to introduce friends and colleagues as guests, so that their lives too can be enriched by the experience. They value the variety of opportunity offered, from table topics to prepared speeches and evaluations. The various roles – from Timekeeper to Toastmaster – present invaluable leadership and developmental possibilities. Another benefit that was often mentioned by members was increased confidence in all manner of communication through using tactics such as pausing, humour, body language or storytelling. They have experienced the effects of these and other techniques. They have learnt to keep on top of their fears, are willing to push themselves out of their comfort zone and extend their boundaries ever further. “I love being on stage now” was one comment. Another Early Bird said, “I now believe that along with the rest of the world I have a voice – and it’s worth listening to.” Joining the club and undertaking the programme of speeches and leadership tasks has helped people advance in their careers. Some have become professional speakers, some run seminars, others sell property by delivering hour-long sales pitches to investors. All agree that they would probably not have considered doing these things before they joined Early Birds.
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
Steve Jobs would be proud to be a member of our club. We are all proud to be members of our club for, besides the warmth, inclusivity and consummate professionalism, we lead and, yes, we innovate. Indeed our thirst for innovation is exceptional. Whether it’s turning the room sideways just ‘to see what happens’, introducing challenges and evaluation panels or speaking off the cuff on London’s South Bank – we’re always up for something new. Always moving forwards. Tom Weller, Roger’s successor, was a highly inspirational and energetic leader who delivered dynamic opening addresses. You never knew what was coming next. He’d jump on chairs, get members to talk to the person next to them or have them say ‘good morning’ in their native tongue. His presidency saw the introduction of the Presidential Gala Breakfast, at the end of 2011. Conceived by Nina Glass who organized it with Bianca Tait, it was such a success it’s become an annual event. More ‘firsts’ during his presidency included a demo meeting with 100 attendees, the introduction of extended Table Topics and the purchase of “Gertrude”, our first printer. In July that year Taz Miah succeeded Tom Weller as president, bringing with him unprecedented changes.
“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”
To say that Taz introduced many innovations would be an understatement. He was a ‘fireball of energy’ who emphasised the need to innovate, to differentiate Early Birds from other clubs. We can only skim the surface here. Some changes were relatively minor –rearranging the layout of the room for instance – others were substantial and significant. The introduction of Early Birds TV was a milestone. Still going strong, it allows us to study our own and fellow members’ speeches, so as to learn and improve. We are the only club in the world to have such a valuable resource. EBS Radio with Ian Hawkins, the creation of the Interviewer role, the re-vamp of the Early Birds website, the sponsorship of Imperial College Speakers – all were instigated during his tenure. Many members, whether or not on the leadership team, came up with new ideas; far too many to mention everyone who contributed. Among them Sudeshna Choudhury suggested the extended introduction that soon became available to members and aspiring members alike. Extra support came in the form of 5-minute mentoring sessions with Richard. The Guest Host role was devised and implemented by Michelle Cheung, Taz and Iain Scott. The presidency was rounded off with a highly successful Icebreaker evening. Fifty local business people and friends of members listened to four speeches and enjoyed comedy acts and two table topics sessions. At the end of his presidential year, at Taz’s suggestion, Hilary Briggs was made an honorary member of the club she founded and to which we all owe so much. The desire to innovate continued with our next president, Ben Taylor. The Brains Trust was inaugurated at this time, instigated and led by Tony Duff and George Metcalfe. It involved a question and answer session between the chairman and the panel, with audience participation too. Neil Coleman, as Vice President, Education, introduced the Early Bird Challenge, a means of helping members to think about each other’s development and set each other goals. Some challenges were subtle, others more visible. George Metcalfe set Ian Hawkins the task of singing his evaluation. George delivered a timekeepers report lying on the floor. This was also the year of the Spring Comedy Festival, brought to us by Lesley Lear and Stuart Clark and hosted by Al Cowie and Ian Hawkins. Held in the splendid George pub, it was well attended and hugely enjoyed, with many members performing a variety of acts and speeches. During Ben’s presidency Iain Scott, as Sergeant at Arms, introduced the Sergeant at Armies. A group of members who come in early to help prepare the room. This year we had the highest number of Education awards of any club in the UK or Ireland. And for the second year running we reached the full ten out of ten on the Toastmasters Distinguished Club programme. The means by which Toastmasters International evaluates the health and success of a club.
“Leaders are those who empower others.”
More innovative roles and formats followed in our sixth and seventh year, with President Neil Coleman at the helm. A mentoring page on the Website introduced members and aspiring members to the Early Bird mentors. We saw full length Impromptu Speeches, from topics conjured up by the audience. And the introduction of the Evaluation Panel –where all three evaluators evaluate all three speeches. Members led groundbreaking workshops at the London School of Economics, University College London and AIESEC, the international youth leadership group. The roles of Usher and Camera operator were introduced; the older roles of Linguist and Guest Host were redefined. Neil’s presidency also saw a series of special events. Besides the workshops mentioned above he designed the format for the Area 45 Impromptu Speech Contest, together with Michelle Cheung. Sudeshna Choudhury came up with the idea for the Toastmaster’s Got Talent Christmas Party, which was a resounding success. The final meeting of 2013 was an entertaining Table Topics Extravaganza, organised and led by Mark Pratt. We returned after the break to find that Neil (and Taz) had been hard at work on Early Birds TV, compiling individual playlists for us all. As his presidency drew to an end, Neil introduced a revolutionary Advanced Toastmaster role that he designed with Sabrina Rahman, Vice President, Education. Toastmaster Plus aims to offer members more responsibilities and opportunities for development. The Toastmaster of the day gets to create the whole agenda and, in effect, plan, run and lead his or her own meeting. The first Toastmasters Plus was, fittingly, implemented by Ian Scott, our president elect.
From the very beginning, Hilary was convinced that a club needed both vision and values. She had observed how various founders left an imprint on their clubs. Even when they were no longer around, they left a legacy. Therefore, in forming the business plan and setting out her objectives, she was constantly aware of what she would leave behind. If she was going to start a club, what culture and values should it have? Prompted by her experience of other Toastmasters clubs and guided by the High Performance Leadership programme, she thought long and hard about these issues. Her personal mission was to spread the world about Toastmasters International, making it available to more people, and also to increase her knowledge of leadership through the Advanced Leadership qualification. Central to this mission was the intention to create a sustainable club. A club that would spawn new clubs in the future and also encourage informal networking between its members, opening up new opportunities for mutual support. Measuring these objectives against the present reality, it’s clear that every one of them has been met many times over. Since the birth of Early Birds Speakers, others have been inspired to establish new clubs of their own. To this end, as Division Governor, Hilary set up a workshop to share her own experience and to encourage others to follow her example. She was, and is, aware of just how scary and daunting this can seem. But she believes that, in essence, it’s all about building a team. You don’t have to do it all on your own. Two people took up the challenge, Aaron Wood who started Covent Garden Speakers, our sister club, another morning club that has already achieved Distinguished Club status. The other excellent club that was inspired by Early Bird Speakers is Imperial College Speakers, the brainchild of Michelle Cheung. Asked what she would like to achieve with this history, Hilary replied that she would like it to act as an inspiration to others to start new clubs. Also to honour all those involved in the creation and continuation of Early Birds Speakers, and all those who have helped along the way.
Commissioned by Neil Coleman, President, Early Birds Speakers, 2013-2014 © Clodagh Phelan, June 2014