Today at Berkeley Lab

From Boulder to Bolder, With a Little Help From Toastmasters

By Theresa Duque

As a technical presenter, Michael Commer – a geological research scientist in the Earth & Environmental Sciences Area – says he’s always been decent content-wise. But watching himself on video? That’s a different story. “People told me I should be more outgoing and interesting, but I didn’t know what to do about it,” he said.

That all changed when, one spring day in 2015, a co-worker invited him to check out the Lab’s newly chartered Toast-on-the-Hill Toastmasters Club. Fast-forward two years later with hundreds of hours dedicated to writing, rehearsing, and performing crowd-pleasing speeches, Commer now holds the title of the Best Speaker of Toastmasters International District 57 – the Redwood Empire – a network of nearly 160 clubs in Northern California.

This week, he’s heading for Vancouver, British Columbia, to compete against the best speakers from all over the globe in the 2017 World Championship of Public Speaking semifinals on Aug. 24, at the 86th Annual Toastmasters International Convention. And if he makes the cut in the semifinals, he will vie against nine other contestants on Aug. 25 for the title of World Champion.

In this Q&A, Commer – who is also the 2017 Toast-on-the-Hill Club President – discusses how he transformed himself from a shy earth scientist into an award-winning public speaker, and why anyone who’s ever wanted to improve their presentation skills, native and non-native English speakers alike, should give the Lab’s Toast-on-the-Hill Toastmasters Club a try.


Q: How would you describe yourself as a speaker today?

I feel more confident. My long-term goal is to try out stand-up comedy. I’m not sure if I’m funny enough, but I would like to experiment. I’m not scared anymore because I have nothing to lose. Toastmasters showed me I can put myself out there without wondering if I’ll be embarrassed.

At Toastmasters meetings, members take turns being “the Toastmaster” or chairing the meeting. Shortly after I had volunteered to be the Toastmaster, I was at a conference, and I noticed that I felt more confident. I was more aware of body posture, voice projection, eye contact, all these things that we don’t think about unless we practice them in a safe environment like at a Toastmasters Club.

Q: Do you still get nervous when giving a speech? How do you control it? 

I do still feel nervous before giving a speech, but with more and more experience speaking in front of an audience, the faster the stage fright goes away. Every time I practiced, my speech and body language got more precise. I also practiced in front of a mirror, in front of the Lab’s Toastmasters Club, and filmed myself.

I control my nervousness by connecting with the audience. Every time I give a speech, I approach it like I’m giving you a gift. I’ve trained myself to see me and the audience as one unit. I believe that, with stage experience, you can read how people are responding to you – or not responding – in the beginning and adapt.

Q: What inspired the theme of your winning District 57 speech, “To Be a Little Bo(u)lder”?

I was sitting in my office when I saw a little rock called a geode that I got at a conference. On one side, it’s a boring gray rock, but on the other side, it’s sparkly. I thought, “That could be me!” When people first meet me, they often perceive me as a “gray” person, but when they get to know me, they realize there’s way more inside me that’s fun and interesting. For example, I love jazz and play the saxophone.

The message behind “To Be a Little Bo(u)lder” says that if you actually show up, you can impress people. You have so much to show; you shouldn’t hold back, so be a little bolder.

Q: What advice do you have for Lab employees who want to become a better speaker but speak English as a second language?

Don’t worry; there are a lot of Toastmasters who speak English as a second language. German is my first language, and now I’m competing in an international speech competition. No matter what your first language is, being in Toastmasters is a huge opportunity to grow personally by learning how to be a better communicator. And if you serve as a club officer, you can learn leadership skills that will help you at work.

When giving a speech at club meetings, you really can try out a new version of yourself without any repercussions. You can see what it’s like to do stand-up comedy or give an inspirational speech – or maybe even a sad one – if you want. In the end, you’ll get constructive feedback from the other Toastmasters members. Toast-on-the-Hill has really helped me in my pursuit of personal growth.

Toast-on-the-Hill meets every Thursday, noon to 1 p.m., in Bldg. 70A, Room 3377. To learn more about the club, go to