Summer Resolutions

It’s the first week of July, half-past 2013. Do you know where your resolutions are?

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to ballroom dance. I forgot about that until just now. I’ll have to come back to it. I also resolved to work on writing and telling true inspirational stories. Toward the second goal, in addition to launching this blog, I joined the Toastmasters Club at my office building. This is a club for public speaking. I recently gave my second “prepared” speech to the group.

It’s not that public speaking is something I haven’t done before. I have addressed crowds of several hundred people on many occasions. But sometimes I find it nerve-wracking and sometimes I find it effortless and the difference has to do with how often I speak in front of groups. So one of my goals for this year was to make a habit of it.

At my first meeting of the Toastmasters a few months ago, I was struck by how structured it was. Our club meets every other Wednesday over a lunch hour. At each meeting, two or three people give a scheduled, 5-7 minute prepared speech. A member of the group times each speaker, using a lamp with three colored bulbs in a row — green, yellow and red, to signal how much time the speaker has left. Another Toastmaster counts the grammatical mistakes and another person does an evaluation for each speaker. In addition to the prepared speeches, each meeting includes table-topics which are prompts for spontaneous two-minute talks. Each meeting also has a theme for the day and a word of the day, which speakers are encouraged to incorporate.

I spent my first several meetings observing this process, avoiding any chance to speak and deciding I didn’t like this at all.

Did you hear the table topic I got? It was too weird. I can’t believe they actually tally up the ‘ums’ at the end of the meeting. How annoying. And that timer lamp is the worst. The Timekeeper reports the exact minutes for each person, not just the prepared speeches. And then someone else evaluates the whole meeting, even the evaluators. It’s a bit much. I really don’t know if this is for me, I said later to anybody who would listen. It’s a cult. And the schedule is a bother. I have other places to be at lunch.

Fortunately, even though this was my first Toastmaster’s experience, I have actually been here before. I mean, deciding to try something new and then listing all the reasons not to. There is a part of your mind that is an expert excuse maker and it can be very manipulative. That voice will make every complaint sound legit, when it’s really just the sound of you getting in your own way, to avoid a bit of effort or risk. But you can outsmart your excuse-making self. You can set up a commitment device from the get-go that will hold your goal steady until you get past this phase. In my case, I paid membership dues for several months and right away set a date to give my first prepared speech.

When you join Toastmasters, you get a handbook with 10 speech ‘projects’, suggestions for prepared speeches that you can give when you are ready. At the end of completing all ten, you get a certificate. Each speech has a focus such as body language, organization or using visual aides. The first one is the Ice Breaker, and the job of the speech is to introduce yourself.

On May 1, I was one of three people giving prepared speeches to a crowd of about 20 members. I told a story about my family of origin (which I then used as an early blog post) as a way of explaining where I was from. Though I knew the story by heart, I practiced it several times at home in the days before. The audience ate it up. Fellow Toastmasters wrote their reviews on little slips of paper and a few stood up to give their feedback. The Grammarian said he was so into my story that he forgot to count his ums. The Timekeeper said I could have talked all day. I was pumped. I wondered if this was beginner’s luck and right away scheduled my second speech for June.

On the day of my second speech, the theme of the meeting was summer resolutions. I hadn’t thought about summer this way before, but it’s a time for setting goals, too — things like working toward a fitness target, completing a household project or maybe just savoring every day. I like the idea of breaking a big goal down to the bit that you can accomplish in a season. Summer is also a chance to take a look back at the first half of the year and recalibrate. I recently began a daily meditation practice, something that wasn’t on my radar in January. I hope to be able to meditate in full lotus for ten minutes by the end of the summer. At the moment, the meditation class fits my schedule more readily than ballroom dancing, which will have to wait. As for the public speaking goal, that one seems to have stuck.

For my second prepared speech, I shared a story that I have written about on this blog, about going from Wisconsin to Harvard. This one I hadn’t practiced as much and I learned a valuable lesson. When I don’t practice the speech, I over-talk the first-half, and wind up hurrying through the conclusion when I see the red timer light go on. I also use filler-words more. I said ‘um’ six times in nine minutes and had one other grammatical correction. Despite this, the comments were once again very encouraging. One seasoned Toastmaster began her note by saying, “Amy you have quite the gift.” She recommended that I ask for more time at the start, rather than cutting material.

I made a mental note of the helpful criticisms, and then immediately tossed out the little papers they were written on. No need to dwell.

That last note I pinned to a bulletin board near my office computer, where I would see it often. It’s possible this reviewer was just being nice or that she says that kind of thing to everybody. But, no matter. I have decided to add one more resolution to the pile, and I recommend it to anyone. That is to believe the nice things people say.

When it was time to decide about continuing my Toastmasters membership, I noticed I was all out of excuses. So, I rejoined for another six months. I haven’t yet scheduled my third prepared speech, but I hope to do so in July. And now that I am benefiting from the process, I figure I might as well do my part. So, yes, at our next meeting, it’ll be me in charge of the timer lamp.

Story by Amy Ambrose,


Allison Shapira Finds Her Voice

My first memory of Allison Shapira is her singing her introduction to our class at the Harvard Kennedy School in summer 2008.

As is tradition in the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration, each of our 180 or so classmates gave a 15-second speech about ourselves, one after the other, in one swift go. Most of us used that time to say where we were from, what our names meant or what we wanted to do.

When Allison Shapira took the stage, she didn’t speak a word but held up her name card and beautifully sang part of an aria by Handel called “Lascia ch’io pianga”. A former opera singer, Allison worked at the Harvard Kennedy School as Program Manager for the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program and also taught workshops in public speaking at the school.

That was five years ago. Today, Allison doesn’t sing opera. And she doesn’t work at Harvard or live in Boston, either. She owns her own company based in Washington DC called Global Public Speaking and she sings folk music with guitar. At 35, she is in every way living life on her terms. She smiles widely and often, and has a way of making her self-determination odyssey sound easy and even obvious, when little about it was either.

For starters, switching from the formality of classical music to the personal nature of folk songs takes some doing. Allison searched and found a vocal instructor to help her set down the rigidity of her opera training and unlock her folk voice. Then she tried unsuccessfully to find a guitarist to accompany her. Undeterred, she decided to learn to play guitar herself. She began with an acoustic guitar she borrowed through a friend and basic online lessons.

Allison practiced playing guitar for hours and hours every week for months. She set aside other leisure activities like TV and books. “I knew from public speaking that the only way to get better is to practice,” she says. “So I pushed myself to perform.” Soon, she took the stage at open mic nights in the Boston area. And before long she was writing and performing her own songs.

If the music had been the only thing changing in Allison’s life that would have been enough. But she also reinvented her daytime profession and left a city where she had lived for 14 years. There was a moment when she had a job offer in DC that she thought she wanted, at a consulting firm working in international affairs. But something about the new job wasn’t the right fit, so she turned it down after she had already resigned her position at Harvard. Saying no left her empty-handed, but sometimes in order to find the right thing, you have to say no to absolutely anything else. You have to clear the runway to give your passion the space to land.

For a while she stayed with friends and did some soul-searching. She traveled Europe for several weeks with her guitar, performing at cafe’s and restaurants in Vienna, Napoli, Croatia and Paris. When she returned to the US, she promptly recorded her debut album, Coming Home. “It’s about coming home to my music,” she said, at her CD release party this spring at Club Passim.

At about this same time, Allison realized she was done looking for a mythical day job and instead would create one. She launched a business around empowering others, especially women, to find their authentic speaking voice. Very soon, Global Public Speaking was off and running, with assignments around the world, including teaching public speaking and leadership at Georgetown University.

Initially, the music and the public speaking were treated as unrelated ventures, but over time Allison combined lessons from the two in her work. In speaking as well as performing, “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be authentic, ” she says. “The audience will respond if the speaker is passionate about what she has to say.” This message is at the heart of a recent TEDx talk Allison gave in Alexandria, Virginia called Find Your Voice.

From the very beginning in launching this blog, I had hoped to profile Allison Shapira and I am grateful she let me share her story. I learn a lot from her example. For one thing, whether you consciously know it or not, you create your life brand by what you choose to spend your time on. I realized that despite family obligations and a day-job, I could dedicate some time to writing. The more I do, the more writing becomes a part of who I am. For another thing, you’d be surprised what it means to other people when you say what only you can say, when you speak or write or sing from your authentic voice.

“I write a song about something that is very personal to me and then someone in the audience will speak to me afterwards and tell me how much my song was about them,” Allison says. “Those are my favorite moments.”

Allison recently paid a visit to New York City in the hopes of passing her debut album to Joan Baez, one of her top three musical inspirations. In the midst of a lot of noise backstage at a concert in Central Park, this encounter didn’t go quite as she had hoped. All Allison was able to say was “I’m a recovering opera singer and this is my CD.” To which Ms. Baez replied, “You’re recovering from what?”

Allison shared this story at a dinner party among friends and we agreed it will be funny to tell the next time Allison performs a song by her role model. She is often compared to a young Joan Baez and someone at the table remarked about Allison becoming the next rendition of her. This is high praise.

When she first began as a folk-singer, Allison mostly sang other people’s music, but now, when she performs a two-hour show, over half of the songs are originals she wrote. This is what I am thinking when I say, “But you’re not the newest edition of Joan Baez. You’re the newest edition of Allison Shapira.” With that my friend flashes one of her signature smiles, because she knows that’s true. And, it’s even better.

Allison Shapira will perform on Tuesday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at the New Deal Cafe in Greenbelt, Maryland. She performs regularly in the DC area.

Her web-site links include:
Allison Shapira Music at
Global Public Speaking:
Her Tedx talk: Find Your Voice

Story by Amy Ambrose,