Becoming DTM: Rebirth in Three Stages
By Bilquis Ahmed
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. For me, the distance between joining Toastmasters (an international organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills) and becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster –DTM- was neither short nor straight.
It spanned seven years and two continents. Moreover, from my initial exposure to Toastmasters to finally earning my DTM, I experienced three periods of rebirth during this journey. Change is inevitable, yet I took no joy in being uprooted again and again. However, with each rebirth, I rose again as a stronger, wiser version of myself.
DTM is the highest achievement in the Toastmasters educational program. Initially, I never envisioned I would earn my DTM. That lofty honor had to be reserved for people with experience, eloquence, and expertise as a speaker. I had none of that. It was also for those with an ambition to be influential leaders. I had no such ambition. I did know that success and achievement come through the guidance, support and encouragement of others.
My success depended on all the members and mentors who helped me along the way. Pele said: “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” I loved speaking. I concentrated on achieving one educational award after another. Before I knew it, I had earned my DTM.
I had first heard about Toastmasters when I was in high school. I'd always been shy and afraid to show my vulnerability to the world. Here was a chance to outgrow this way of thinking. Disappointment was all I felt when I learned you had to be 18 years old to join. It became a future goal. At university, I was too busy to join and then the desire and idea of Toastmasters receded from my mind.
A rebirth of this idea occurred in 2003 when I attended a wedding. My sister, Tasneem Yacoob, performed the toast for the bride, Mehjabeen Shaikh, who was her childhood friend. She captivated an audience of two hundred with her words. The bride became misty-eyed while listening and gave my sister a tight embrace when she finished. I sat with my mouth open. My initial reaction was that I could never do that. But my heart remembered the yearning from high school to join Toastmasters and whispered, "I want to try." Within two months, I enrolled in a public speaking course. In a happy coincidence, the instructor turned out to be Don Johnson, the 1979 World Champion of Public Speaking. He had joined Toastmasters when his manager insisted he do so to improve his poor presentation skills. He thrived in Toastmasters. Mr Johnson shared the secrets that helped him win the world championship.
Later, Mr Johnson invited us to visit his home club Torrance Chamber of Commerce Toastmasters in Torrance, California. When I arrived as a guest, I felt like I found my long lost family. I loved the camaraderie, the precision, the professionalism but most of all the inspiring speakers who overcame difficulties and thrived. I finished my Competent Toastmaster-CTM (that’s what a CC was called back then) within a year with the help of Marie Sardinha, my gentle mentor. Her kind heart and wit guided me through the daunting first year.
The biggest lesson I learned in this phase of the journey was that the audience is the most important part of a presentation. Speaking is not about you. When I first took the stage, I hid behind the lectern and buried my face in my notes. As I progressed, I delivered speeches without notes, but I was afraid to look the audience in the eye. I imagined hostile glares would be focused at me. When I finally developed the confidence to maintain eye contact, I learned that the audience actually supported me.
After only one year in Toastmasters, my momentum plummeted to earth without a parachute. I was pregnant during that time, fell ill with anemia, and had to be hospitalized. I didn't return to Toastmasters. For six years after the birth of my daughter, I missed the joy and exhilaration of attending meetings, the challenge of writing speeches and most of all being inspired by my fellow Toastmasters.
Returning to the same club after that isolation felt like a rebirth. The joy and challenge of creating speeches and delivering them to an appreciative audience energized me. During the next four years, I earned my Competent Leader-CL, Advanced Leader Bronze-ALB, Advanced Communicator Bronze-ACB, Advanced Communicator Silver-ACS and Advanced Communicator Gold-ACG. Creating a plan with mini goals helped me in reaching these education awards. In addition, my fellow club members nudged me to serve. DTM Bonny Kamen always advocated trying new experiences. She traveled often, rode hot air balloons, ate unusual cuisine and danced in front of strangers. I was scared to do that. I would rather stay in the comfort of the familiar. She taught me to say yes to opportunities and figure out how later. So I took the opportunity, said “Yes” and served as VPE, president and VPM in those years.
On the road to DTM, I hit another detour. Moving to Saudi in 2014 proved to be a big challenge. Luckily DTM Maria Ruiz instilled in me the notion that you must thrive wherever you are, that if you focus on solutions rather than problems, you will find success and positivity.
When I joined Dhahran Women’s Toastmasters in 2015, I experienced another rebirth. The treasure of passionate and intelligent women uplifted me; they renewed my desire to become a professional speaker. Their perspectives helped me gain clarity and focus which in turn boosted my productivity. I had never been this focused or productive in my life. With access to over ten clubs, I grew as a confident speaker. My mentor, DTM Akanke, taught me the importance of excellence and she taught me two important phrases. I refer to them as Akankeisms: Feed two birds with one seed and Speak of the angel. They were positive twists on common expressions. I use her words all the time.
The first year here I focused on completing a High Performance Leadership-HPL project and the second year I served as an area director and club coach to fulfill the final requirements to earn the Advanced Leader Silver-ALS award. Serving others and helping them on their personal journeys was gratifying.
The journey to DTM has been one of hard work, determination and joy. It was divided into three distinct stages in which I experienced a rebirth each time, a sense of renewal and a rapid burst of activity just like springtime sees rebirth and rapid growth. It has been memorable not only for the knowledge I have gained and the experiences but mainly because of the many members and mentors who helped me along the way. I owe this success to each and every one of them.