Interview with District 59 Champion
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. After almost two weeks trying to find space in Daniel’s (and mine) busy agenda, our perseverance was rewarded with a pleasant conversation. Brilliant speaker, friendly person and an experienced Toastmaster, it was easy to get along with Daniel and learn a little bit more about the true Toastmaster spirit.
Could you share with us a little bit about your background?
I’m an economist by profession, so I’m used to presenting – I do a lot of it in my working life. But it tends to be very serious topics. Several years ago, someone told me I’d have more fun with ‘Toastmasters’. My first thought was ‘I don’t want to join a club where people just speak – that doesn’t sound like fun at all’. However, I went to a meeting and I loved it! The atmosphere was so great, the speakers so funny, so inspiring – I really wanted to be one of them. And after all these years I think I can finally say I’ve achieved this ambition.
Which was your first club?
I still go to my first club, the ‘Brussels Toastmasters’. It’s a dinner club, which is fantastic. Partly because I love having dinner together, partly because they serve wine. So by the time the last speech arrives, everyone is a little bit more “inspired”. I can also say that in a dinner club you get used to speaking with interruptions, which is an important skill.
That’s interesting… How do you organize the sessions? It’s always a trouble to have ‘dinner meetings’ because it’s difficult to organize them, especially because we have to choose when are the interruptions.
At the beginning of the meeting we have wine, bread and table topics. Then we have a break for dinner, which is like 15 minutes. After, we start the prepared speeches and both the dessert and the coffee come between speeches. It works quite well!
How many people do you have in your club?
About 50 members and more or less 30 people per meeting.
Wow! Those numbers are excellent. Daniel, can I say that Toastmasters changed your life?
Yes, for sure. I can say it changed my life in lots of different ways, but to keep it short I’ll just focus in two ways. One is the speaking, the ability to speak confidently. I can speak to my board of directors or to a large group of people and that doesn’t bother me. That kind of confidence is something we, Toastmasters, have because we practice a lot and that helped in my life. The other thing is the leadership. I’ve been President of my club, I’ve been Area Director and so on. These roles helped me develop my leadership skills in a way that we just don’t have the chance to do at work. At work people often just throw you into a situation and expect you to do it. In Toastmasters, we can always ask for mentors, ask for honest feedback, ask people for help – this is how our leadership skills grow. Now that we are talking, I remember a funny story that shows how Toastmasters can be useful in the most different contexts. My wife and I went to a wedding, and the best man was really nervous about the speech. So, he went out to practice and didn’t come back. In the end it turns out that he just lost track of the time, but the thing is that at the time of the speech he wasn’t there. Then, the bride came to me and said ‘you’re a Toastmaster, we need a funny speech’. I said ‘give me 60 seconds’ and I prepared something funny, something serious and something cute. It worked!
That’s why I never tell to anyone that I’m a Toastmaster… It seems to me that you put a lot of emphasis on practice. Am I right?
Totally. I think practice is really important. I was interviewed here for a television and the first question was “what helps you becoming more confident as a speaker?” I just said “practice”. Everybody is looking for that killer technique and there are some good techniques. However, the only thing that makes you better is practice, practice, practice. If you expect to find a killer technique to get you 10x better, you will not find it. But if you expect to practice, practice, practice and get 1% better today, 1% better tomorrow… 10x better in 10 years, than you will get it.
“what helps you becoming more confident as a speaker?” I just said “practice” … “the only thing that makes you better is practice, practice, practice.”
How do you prepare your speeches?
Hummmm… I often like to brainstorm with other people. It can be really helpful to have a rough idea for a speech and ask people what they think about it. According to their reaction, you get an idea of what are the good bits of the speech. I also give speeches aloud to my cat, he always loves when I speak to him. My wife is good but she doesn’t always have the time to listen to the speeches, while my cat has all the time in the world. Practicing aloud or practicing to somebody else and see how it sounds – I really believe it’s important.
Do you usually write your speeches?
The bigger the speech, the more likely I’m to write it. For example, the speech for the World Championship was all written down. When you have a speech like that, every single word needs to justify its presence.
I totally agree with you. How do you get ideas for your speeches?
Everyday life. Things that happen to me, things that are important to me… The story I told in the District, it’s a family story. Of course family stories are often long and complicated stories, so the trick is to identify the key details that everybody needs to know. The story that I told is essentially the story of why I do my job. I work for the European Commission, I believe in Europe – despite being British – and I believe in reconciliation and Europeans working together. The reason why I believe in that is partly because of my grandfather’s story. In one sense, I was telling the story of the war but in another sense it’s a personal story, the story of my own evolution. Good speeches are those in which you tell something personal and touch in some universal truth.
How did you improve your speech during the public speaking competition?
I did several things. First of all, I took an excellent coach, Bob Mohl, who really helped me. Secondly, I tested my speech on different audiences. I tried to work out what was touching them, keeping the things that were working and replacing those who weren’t working. I did that until I get something that pretty much everyone liked.
I think it’s not easy to manage feedback because it can be really contradictory. How do you manage feedback?
In my professional life, I used to aggregating data and to comparing data from different sources. When I approach a speech, I use these tools to get the most out of the feedback. One simple tool which doesn’t require a degree in econometrics: believing that every person’s feedback is valuable, but you have to add up all of the feedback from everyone to get the complete picture. Every person’s feedback is like one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. You put together all the pieces and you get a clear picture. When I receive the evaluation forms I’ll look for trends and average the things that lots of people are saying. The more feedback you get, the easier it is to do that – so actually the more feedback the clearer things become.
I love that analogy of the jigsaw! That really expresses the idea. However, it’s not always easy to emotionally manage feedback…
That’s true, but as a Toastmasters you get years of experience doing that. It gets easier as the time goes on.
We learn how to give feedback with the ‘sandwich’ method. Don’t you think it would be better to learn how to listen to non-sandwich feedback? In our daily life, people doesn’t give us sandwich feedback…
That’s a good point. I think that ideal feedback is a balance between encouragement and challenge. Different people need different amounts of encouragement or challenge. We always like to get encouragement. And it’s true that sometimes, in our daily life, we don’t get enough encouragement. But we also need to learn to accept challenge.
How was your experience in the World Championship?
It was impressive! The first thing I can say is that everything is very well organized. Totally unbelievable. The second thing is that the level of the speakers is really high. Even the worst guy on stage is a great speaker. Also, I can say that the audience was very well warmed up and it was easy to make them laugh. I liked that! I think it was a very good experience and I learned a lot.
If you could go back in time, what would you change in your preparation for the World Championship?
I think my preparation was good. Bob was a great coach and I had a lot of good people advising me. I think the only thing I’d change was the topic. The topic was very meaningful to me, to Europeans, but I think that I’d need a simpler and funnier topic if I ever go to the World Championship again.
What was the most important thing you did when preparing for the competition?
Practicing in front of audiences. I think Darren Lacroix said it’s the best: ‘stage time, stage time, stage time’. In my opinion, there’s no substitute for practice in front of live audiences. Fortunately, many clubs in Belgium, France, Netherlands and England opened the doors for me to practice. Speak to audiences, that’s definitely my advice.
You are already one of the best speakers in the world and you’ve been at the top. How can you improve?
I find it an interesting question! I see why you ask that question but I’ll put it the other way round. After being at the world level, after seen these great speakers, after speaking to them, how can I not improve? I see more possibilities than ever for improving my speaking skills!
Do you want to share with us one of those ideas?
I’m still processing, but I’d like to blend inspirational speaking with humorous speaking.
Do you have any references? People you watch on YouTube or people you follow on the Internet…
Yes, a lot. The usual Toastmasters of course: Darren Lacroix, Jock Elliott, Mohammed Qahtani, Dananjaya Hettiarachchi… Regarding non-Toastmasters, I like to watch Dara O’Briain, Eddie Izzard, George Carlin…
What are your future projects in Toastmasters?
My biggest project for the future is not related with Toastmasters. I’m going to have a baby in November, it’s my second child. I do have projects in Toastmasters, but I’ll wait until January. Definitely, I’ll look to improve as a speaker but I also want to improve in coaching other people – Toastmasters has been very good to me, and I want to give back.