Toastmasters for Farmers

Effective communication is a powerful tool that many outside of agriculture use on a daily basis.

Effective communication is a powerful tool that many outside of agriculture use on a daily basis. Some use this tool to tell our story for us, when they haven’t experienced the trials and tribulations of farm life. This concerns me greatly as consumers and elected leaders get further removed from the farm. It’s time agriculturists learn these tools and take personal responsibility for the message that is portrayed to the public.

That said, public speaking and media outreach are some of the scariest activities to do for anyone, least of all, folks that work the land. Good, bad or indifferent, forces have reduced our farming population so low that we now have a great opportunity.

Opportunity? What opportunity? As I see it, if you’re the only local farmer at a hearing or writing an editorial, which is usually the case, you have the power to control the message. My experience has been policy is made by those who show up and speak up. Many of us are terrified at the thought of public speaking, but it is absolutely essential that we do so and do it well.

But how? Find a mentor and get practicing.

I literally stumbled into my mentors when my wife and I enrolled in ballroom dancing classes. My strange and embarrassing dance wardrobe of “Ben and Jerry’s” cow tee shirt and cowboy boots, always seemed to work into a conversation about agriculture after the class.

“With your knowledge and passion about farming, you should come to our next Toastmaster meeting and hone your public speaking skills,” suggested Bob and Fred. I could relate to their suggestion after seeing evaluations of my former speeches. I could definitely use the practice.

Their motivation and passion to help had me searching the web for what this organization was all about. I found out Toastmasters International is a professional communication and leadership organization devoted to fostering self-confidence and personal growth. It sounded like a club that I could surely use.

I entered the meeting room filled mostly with business professionals, loaded with smiles and happy salutations. I must be in a twilight zone or these folks like wine to be so congenial. Neither of course, these were just very passionate people supporting each other in the pursuit of masterful communication skills and achievement. Being told by my friends that I have the gift of gab, I guess I have landed in Utopia central for speaking. The stage was set for my new quest to enlighten and inform my new friends on the nuances of grass-based agriculture.

My first speech, only 7 minutes, in front of 25 strangers, centered around describing myself, my family, my jack-of-all-trades career path, my passions and even a tale on getting hit by lightning. I tried to minimize the Ahs like the plague and used limited notes. imer guy threw up a red card and just like that, the uncomfortable experience was over. Whew, I did it, and it felt good.

Speech #2 had me back with more confidence, practice and even fewer notes. This time I described the differences of poultry production and how different husbandry and environmental practices can affect egg quality. My competent communicator manual suggested using props for this speech to get the point across.

My third speech was about the use of sweeteners and our addiction to High Fructose Corn Syrup(HFCS) and what it has done for our health, our environment and our local communities. I presented thoughts on using more natural sugars like honey, maple syrup and local fruits instead of the highly processed alternative. In keeping with the props theme, I ended my talk by biting into a fresh strawberry and quipped that “Sugar never tasted so good,” followed by passing a quart of berries around the room. That’s impact.

A member of the club is charged with evaluating your speech in front of everyone, which helps everyone learn to get better. I was commended for my knowledge and use of props, while being urged to get out in front of the lectern more often. The evaluation process and positive comments from members is exhilarating and satisfying for your self-esteem. It is inspiring to comprehend the power of the spoken word, even though it’s scary for most folks. The camaraderie and mentoring from Fred and Bob has been invaluable for my limited success so far.

This tale illustrates how important it is to receive professional training and hands-on learning strategies as a way to compete with the big dogs. My research has indicated that non-farm businesses invest in this type of training for their employees so they can confidently represent themselves, and their companies at meetings and venues.

How does agriculture fare in this equation of personal development? I’m sorry to say, it’s hardly on the radar. If society and agriculture truly wants farmers to tell their important stories and tell them well, we need to make some investment in programming that helps us deal with the challenges of being out in the public eye. The food system awaits your arrival as a communicator extraordinaire.