The Icebreaker: “Questions, Lies and a Story”

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I gave my first speech, yesterday. The first speech in the Toastmasters programme is called “The Icebreaker”, and aims to let you start speaking in front of an audience, and to show you skills you already have but are perhaps unaware of.

I started by searching the web for advice. Some sites recommend asking yourself certain questions: the What/When/Where/How type of thing. “What do you do (for a living)?”, “When were the most significant times of your life?”, “Where do you come from?”, and so on.

Well I took a look at the first question and thought, “Gosh! I’m a programmer! Now, who wants to hear about that?”.

So that got me a bit worried.

Then I talked with my wife, Magdalena, and she was very calm. Having been a Toastmasters club member in London, Magdalena has given a couple of speeches in her time, including her own Icebreaker. So she’s been there and done it.

She suggested I just talk a bit about my life – going to live in Germany – and maybe a bit about my grandmother, who was German, as the connection.

That calmed me down a bit. After all, my Grandma fled the Nazis! What could possibly be more interesting than that?

So I decided to centre the story around her fleeing Germany and then tail it off with my going back. Now, I knew this was a bit dangerous – it was about her, not really about me – but I thought, “What the heck? It’s at least an interesting story.”

By now, I had enough to make a first stab at it. I sat down in front of the word processor and hammered away – I wrote the whole thing out in full, as if it were a blog entry. And now that I was thinking more clearly, I actually found benefit in my being a boring old programmer – I made that the start of my speech. I wove in a story about a guy I knew who had a a way out of this, which I thought was funny:

“The Icebreaker – A Chance to Speak About Yourself”

Crumbs.

What could I possibly find interesting to talk about myself? For 4-6 minutes?

Well, I’ve been reading up on it a bit. Many sites suggest you talk a bit about who you are, what you do and where you come from. Answer the what/where/when/how questions.

So many difficult questions at once! Could I even answer them to myself, let alone a room full of experienced speakers?

Well, what do I do? It’s a fair enough question. A lot of people define themselves by what they do. They expect you to do the same. “I’m a dentist – what do you do?”, or “I’m a teacher – who are you”? They want you to answer with a clear profession, so they can mark you down as that kind of person.

But what should I say? I mean, I’m a programmer. There, I’ve said it. It’s not very exciting, is it? It’s not a good icebreaker at parties. Why should it work here?

I could call myself a “Software Engineer”, or an “IT Consultant”, but you’ll see through that. Within minutes, you’ll have me down as a reclusive nerd – who likes to fiddle with wires, tap keys and twiddle with gamepads. On his own.

Now maybe you think I’m being hard on myself, but I know I’m not the only one who feels like this. A guy I used to work with – Richard – was a geek, just like me. He fixed the software for a large bank. But he had an answer to this question – he lied. This wasn’t a once-off, Richard always lied. Whenever you asked him what he did for a living, that is.

He always said he was an artist – now, how cool is that? And because Richard had perfected this act over a number of years, he’d developed the story further.

“First I cover the canvas with tar,” he’d say, “then I roll all over it – naked. At the end, I’ll have died a little, but I’ll be a bigger man than I was before I started.”

The speech then went on to say I thought I’d be better off telling a story than answering questions, and I told the story of my grandmother’s fleeing the Nazis.

So there was some progress, and I’d made a rough start. The next thing that happened was that Keith, my mentor for the first few speeches, very kindly called me up. While he wouldn’t be able to come this time (he has a speaking engagement – lucky Keith!), he did give me some excellent advice.

The best advice Keith, or indeed anyone else, gave me was: “If you think you’re more likely to run over time than under, have a closing statement prepared which you can bring into action at any point near the end”.

Ah, the closing statement. That was the one thing I hadn’t really got together, but I could see it was a gem of advice. If you have a flexible enough statement, you won’t run out of time. And, as Keith also pointed out to me, nobody in the audience knows all the points you wanted to cover. As long as it fits together, you’ll be able to wind up as soon as you get the warning from the club timer.

I thought a bit more about it, and came up with this:

Now, I know it was a bit cheeky talking so much about my grandmother when I ought to be telling you about myself. But do you know what? By telling you about my grandmother, Marta, I think I’ve finally answered those questions, the what/where/when/how. You probably know a bit now, about who I am. And where I came from.

Madame President, fellow Toastmasters and – especially – honoured guests, I hope this story has helped me accomplish my first speech goals, that it has told you a bit about me. And I hope it has broken the ice.

I thought that by facing the fact I’d cheated (I told my grandmother’s story, rather than mine) head on, I’d pre-empt any serious criticism of it. It’s hard to tell someone they’ve done something wrong, if they’ve already apologised for it. Or, that was the theory any way.

And I now had a closing statement I could roll out, as soon as I needed it. As long as I could get the speech somehow to the bit about my having gone back to Germany, I’d be fine.

In my word processor, I did a quick word count – 1,488. A quick google search revealed I should be looking for about 140 words/minute, so this was over 10 minutes’ material. For the Icebreaker, you’re aiming for 4-6 minutes, so there needed to be some judicious culling. I tried to get it down to 5 minutes.

To do this, I crossed out sections and words on the printed page, and then read the speech out a couple of times, straight from the print-out. I repeated this a few times, until I was comfortable it was within the right sort of time period.

One thing to watch out here (thanks to Geoff for this tip!), you will probably get a little nervous on the day and your speech rate will increase. Mine certainly did. So it is a good idea not to aim for the absolute minimum (4 minutes).

Anyhow, after I’d got the speech into the right sort of length, and I’d ironed out one or two bits (removing any secondary fluff), I was ready to transform it into bullet points. Basically, I went through the whole speech with a pad of paper, and I wrote down significant words and phrases onto the pad.

Then Magdalena, my lovely wife, very kindly typed these out onto 2 cards for me (my writing is appalling!) And I was basically done, and ready.

On the day of the speech itself, I took the cards to work and, at lunchtime, I went for a walk in the park. I repeated the speech over and over to myself, timing and using only the bullet point cards for guidance. The people walking their dogs and looking for a quiet spot of lunch must’ve thought me quite mad as I raised my hands and talked to an imaginary audience, but I persevered!

By the time I got to Maidenhead Speakers Club, that evening, I was nervous but well prepared. I learnt that Geoff was to be my evaluator, and he really helped me with tips on timing and on avoiding Errms and Ahs. One thing he said which really helped, “If you are going to Erm, you’ll know about it, so don’t do it! Take a pause instead.”

I know, it sounds simple enough but it really helped me.

I was to be first speaker up, so after the table topics, and the grammarian had been and gone, I tentatively awaited my call.

When it came, I nervously walked up to the stage, taking in a deep breath so my first words would sound calm. I shook the hand of the evening’s organiser (Caroline, who did a super job!), and thanked her for the introduction. Then I launched straight into my opening statement:

“The Icebreaker – A Chance to Speak About Yourself”

Crumbs.

I looked at everyone in the audience, trying to make eye contact with as many people as possible. I seemed to have their attention, so that was a good start.

When I got to the jokes, they laughed – in unexpected places. The stuff about my being a nerd got the biggest laugh, so I extended the story about fellow geek Richard a bit. And they loved the word “naked”!

Maidenhead Speakers Club has a number of very experienced speakers. They’d all been there before, and they knew how it felt to give your very first speech, so they were a very kind audience. When I got to the bit about my Grandmother coming to Scotland to die, emotion overwhelmed me and I felt my voice crack.

There was a real danger I’d lose the plot and start crying, but I managed to pull myself together and finish the speech.

There are 3 warning lights near the back of the hall, to tell you when you’re nearing the end: green, amber and red. You can stop after the green one, but when you get to red, you’ve only got 30 seconds to finish, or you’ll be over time. I’d made my mind up at the start to try to get to amber, and to close then. Thankfully, when the amber light was lit, I was ready to discuss my return to Germany, and finish the tale.

I forgot quite a lot of the stories about my life in Germany but it didn’t seem to matter, and the amber light was constantly in the back of my mind as I tried to finish what I had to say.

Dazed, I rolled out my closing statement, passed the stage back again to Caroline, shook her hand, and staggered back to my seat. Apart from preparing in my seat beforehand, I hadn’t used my notes at all – I had just managed to get into the flow, to tell the story as if to a small group of friends. To be honest, I’d forgotten about the notes, but it was comforting to know they were there, on the lecturn, should I just freeze.

Once you’ve completed your speech, there’s a chance for the audience to comment via little bits of paper. All comments were extremely kind – I’m sure they’re especially forgiving, for your first speech. I got some positive feedback, though. I learnt I’d held my hands together quite a lot towards the end of the speech (right enough, though I was unaware of it at the time), and I’d been projecting my voice quite loudly right the way through. Perhaps, one person suggested, it would have been good to vary it a bit and have a few pauses? Great – this is what I came to learn.

The other speakers were, as usual, fantastic, but my mind was muddled, going over and re-evaluating everything I’d said, so I found it had to concentrate on them.

Then came my evaluation, and Geoff got my full attention as he stood up to comment on my speech. I was completely focused on what he had to say; I was scared to breathe! But he was extremely kind, the main criticism being that I’d told my grandmother’s story, rather than my own (Yes, I’d been expecting that).

And do you know what? At the end of the evening, when the votes were counted, my speech had been voted the best! I was amazed. Caroline called me out to the floor again, and I received a little blue ribbon to prove it. I can’t tell you how good that felt; there had been some truly excellent speakers, that night.

After the meeting, I had a chance to go over a few more notes with Geoff again, and he warned me I’d “set the bar quite high”. Perhaps now, some of the club members will be expecting more from me than I can actually deliver right now. Another member, Gaye, told me she too had been voted the best on her first speech, and it had taken a while to do it again. I certainly won’t be expecting another blue ribbon for quite a while.

But, I’m not too worried about that. It felt fantastic to get it on my first night. It’s going to keep me going for quite a while.

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6 Comments on “The Icebreaker: “Questions, Lies and a Story””


  1. […] I prepared in the same way as for the previous speech, The Icebreaker, but with a twist. This speech actually started out as an email I wrote to my Mum! It made her laugh, and we both thought it was a good basis for a speech. I re-wrote it as a speech in full, before preparing bullet points on cards, the day before the speech. […]

  2. NickySS Says:

    Hi!
    Nice info, big thx.


  3. Thanks for leaving a comment. Glad you liked the blog.


  4. […] remember how very nervous I was on my own Icebreaker speech, not so very long ago. And I was impressed by how very calm Noni appeared to […]


  5. […] out for who would be “Table Topics Master”. It was Geoff – who’d evaluated my Icebreaker, last year. He was sitting in the row in front of […]


  6. […] remember how very nervous I was on my own Icebreaker speech, not so very long ago. And I was impressed by how very calm Noni appeared to be, at the […]


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