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Scared Speechless?  Join Toastmasters

by Pat McNees

(This article first appeared in the Washington Post. Copyright © Pat McNees.)

“Everybody has butterflies in his stomach,” they tell you, referring to the fear that grips so many of us when we have to speak in public. “Toastmasters helps you get the butterflies to fly in formation.”

Many people join Toastmasters – a public speaking service organization with thousands of clubs around the world – to conquer that fear of talking to audiences. Newcomers who know nothing about the organization often expect to feel out of place in a room full of accomplished speakers. But Toastmasters is a tremendous resource for inexperienced speakers. Beginners are welcome – indeed, nurtured – and good speakers are encouraged to get better.

“We look at it as a laboratory and a support group,” says Jo Condrill, a logistician for the Department of Army in the Pentagon, who joined to develop more confidence as a speaker. “It’s also a great way to network and make new friends. I suspect that’s one of the reasons a lot of people belong to the Lone Star (a Toastmasters club she started, of displaced Texans who meet over chili every Thursday at Stevans on the Hill, near Capitol Hill).

“People are becoming much more aware of the necessity to be able to communicate on the job,” says Condrill. “I know the military people are, because General Schwartzkopf was such an effective communicator.”

Harvey Mackay, author of Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive and other guides to success in business, considers Toastmasters to be one of America’s great natural resources.

Kate Prager, a demographer for the National Center for Health Statistics, joined Toastmasters because she was afraid to talk in front of people. “Now I kind of relish speaking, as a challenge. And I found as I became more confident about speaking that my skills in leadership started to improve, too. There are so many opportunities in Toastmasters to practice leadership and there is a lot of training available for it.”

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Practice Makes Perfect
Public speaking is a skill – a craft, not an art,” says Joan Detz, author of How to Write and Give a Speech. “It can be learned.” But as with playing tennis or a musical instrument, Detz explains, you have to do it more than once a year and be good at it. “If you only speak once or twice a year, you aren’t going to be very effective. So if you want to get better, the first thing you should do is give yourself more opportunities to speak.”

Detz recommends Toastmasters clubs as “a great place to get practice. They’re all over the country, they’re inexpensive, and they welcome everyone. You don’t have to pass an admission test to get in. They make everyone feel welcome. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or have spoken a lot. Giving yourself more chances to speak will improve your skill and boost your confidence.”

Moreover, every speech you give at Toastmasters gets a structured, supportive evaluation. Another member gives an evaluation speech, telling you what your strong points were and how you could improve.

“The point we drive home,” says member Steve Gorin of St. Louis, “is that a speech won’t come out the way you rehearsed it, but it may also not come out the way you thought it came out. Someone will give a speech and the evaluator will say “You had good delivery, good poise, and good eye contact,” and the speaker will say, ‘Really? I was nervous as hell!’ There is no way they can tell the audience’s reaction – and each person in the audience reacts differently.”

What happens if someone gives a terrible speech? “There’s something good in every speech. You might have chosen a good topic, for example, or used good humor, but in a disconnected way. Evaluators tell you first what you did right, and then tell you two or three things that could be improved upon. Telling speakers out loud what they did right not only builds up the speaker’s morale but is useful to the rest of the audience – it’s a good way for them to learn what skills are useful.”

In the process, you learn how to listen, how to give constructive feedback (not savage criticism), and how to accept criticism and learn from it. The system is not without its critics. Tom Peters, the author of Excellence, touts it – calling it the Alcoholics Anonymous of the speaking world – but considers its guidelines a “tough too rigid for my taste.” He recommends it, however, for its basic premise: you “get over stage fright by starting small and constantly practicing.”

Gorin, a 29-year-old certified public accountant, joined Toastmasters because he wanted to be able to hold seminars for clients. He became a partner in his firm a year and a half ago partly on the strength of his ability, acquired in Toastmasters, to put together programs, which help bring in business.

“At Toastmasters,” he says, “you learn, but you have fun at the same time. You’re challenged to get up and speak, confronting your worst fears in a supportive environment. That very supportiveness makes it fun. You can talk about whatever you want in your speeches, so people tend to talk about what they know about. And many of the best speeches contain a lot of humor.”

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Learning to Think on Your Feet
You can also develop at your own speed. You don’t prepare a speech for every meeting and you can go as fast or as slow as you want. You can also, but don’t have to, participate in the speech contests held in the spring and fall. You don’t overcome fear of public speaking by sitting nervously silent, so you are encouraged to stand up and speak at least once during the evening, if only to say what you thought of the meeting.

Laurie A. Dvorak, a publicist in Horsham, Pennsylvania, joined Toastmasters because her speeches needed better organization – and she wanted to get more practice speaking. She feels she particularly benefited from “Table Topics,” a regular feature of Toastmasters in which newcomers to meetings are often asked to participate. The Topic Master of the evening chooses a current event or hot issue to discuss, and asks half a dozen people to give impromptu mini-speeches in response to questions for which they have no advance warning – in responses as close as possible to two minutes in length.

“I was used to standing up and giving presentations, for which you have your notes,” says Dvorak. “With Table Topics, all of a sudden you’re being asked something that you could be asked by a reporter or by someone at a cocktail party. It helps you learn to think on your feet, put your thoughts together and present them the way you want them presented.”

As a first- or second-timer, your response may be a sensation of panic at thinking aloud in public, a palpitating heart, sweaty palms, and a total loss of composure or presence of mind. But you get the sense most of the people listening have been there, and they aren’t thinking, “What an idiot.” Do this often enough, it seems, and eventually you learn to sound intelligent, maybe even convincing.

If your reaction to being asked a question during Table Topics is dread and a blank mind, two minutes can seem like forever – and may turn out to be only 36 seconds (a time-keeper reads off your time after all speeches). But practice seems to pay off. Old hands manage to speak almost exactly two minutes.

Careful timing of Table Topics and other speeches also conditions you to time constraints. “Go to any business meeting,” says Dvorak, “and someone who was given five minutes will take fifteen – so when it gets to you you have only two minutes. At Toastmasters, you learn that when your five minutes are up your five minutes are up.”

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Booked Up
Toastmasters itself provides useful resources, in addition to which you might want some of these useful reference materials:
How to Write and Give a Speech by Joan Detz (St. Martin’s Press). A how-to classic. Also by Detz: Can You Say a Few Words? on delivering award presentations, dedications, eulogies, and other special-occasion speeches.
“I Can See You Naked” by Ron Hoff (Andrews & McMeel). Sharp advice for making presentations.
Is There a Speech Inside You? by Don Aslett (Writer’s Digest Books). Practical tips, lighthearted style.
NBC Handbook of Pronunciation by Eugene Ehrlich and Raymond Hand, Jr. (Harper Perennial) – ha RASS ment, not HAR ass ment. See also Is There a Cow in Moscow? and There Is No Zoo in Zoology by Charles H. Elster (Collier Macmillan).
The Power of Eloquence by Thomas Montalbo (Prentice-Hall). What makes a speech like “I Have a Dream” eloquent. (An excellent gift for a would-be speaker: Great Speeches of the Twentieth Century, collected by George Skene (Rhino Record Co., four CDs or audiocassettes).
Toasts by Paul Dickson (Crown). Toasts, blessings, graces, curses, and other expressions of sentiment.
For the Speakers’ Reference Shelf: Webster’s New World Dictionary of Quotable Definitions, ed. Eugene E. Brussell (Prentice-Hall); The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. Clifton Fadiman (Little, Brown); The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations ed. Fred Metcalf (Penguin); Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations, ed. James B. Simpson and Daniel J. Boorstin (Houghton Mifflin); The Book of Business Anecdotes, ed. Peter Hay (Facts on File); Funny Business (business humor for speakers), ed. Gene Perret and Linda Perret (Prentice-Hall); The Manager’s Book of Quotations, ed. Lewis Eigen and Jonathan Siegel (AMACOM); The Speaker’s Sourcebook: Quotes, Stories, and Anecdotes for Every Occasion, ed. Glenn Van Ekeren (Prentice-Hall); The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women, comp. by Rosalie Maggio (Beacon). (See also Pat's own DYING: A Book of Comfort.)

Political quotes: The Bully Pulpit, presidential quotations edited by Elizabeth Frost (Facts on File); Congressional Anecdotes by Paul Boller, Jr. (Oxford University Press); Speaker’s Treasury of Political Stories, Anecdotes, & Humor, ed. Gerald Tomlinson (Prentice-Hall); The Wit & Wisdom of Politics, ed. Charles Henning (Fulcrum).

Religious quotes: Speakers Sourcebook ed. Eleanor Doan (Ministry Resources Library); 12,000 Religious Quotations, ed. Frank S. Mead (Baker Book House); You Can Say That Again ed. R.E.O. White (Zondervan).

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Footnote: A Slow Beginning
Toastmasters was the brainchild of Ralph C. Smedley, a midwesterner who organized the first group in 1904, so high school boys in the Bloomington, Illinois, YMCA could learn communication skills. Members would take turns making speeches, evaluating them, and presiding over the weekly meetings, which were held over a 15-cent dinner (hence the name Toastmasters, less offputting than “Debating Club”). Those first groups set the pattern that still holds: members rotating as toastmaster, short (usually 5-minute) speeches, and feedback in evaluation speeches. The tradition of Table Topics – impromptu speeches on current events – was introduced later.

Wherever Smedley went he started a new group, but when he left the group would die – until, in 1924, he started a group in Santa Ana. Men in neighboring towns – doctors, lawyers, merchants, teachers, and salesmen – heard about the club, visited it, liked what they saw, and began to form their own clubs, with Smedley’s help. Now there are 7500 clubs in 52 countries (including the Soviet Union) with 160,000 members from all walks of life – possibly the world’s fastest growing service organization. For forty years, women attended only on “ladies night.” In 1973, the club opened membership to women. Now in most clubs as many women belong as men.

Smedley encouraged members to think of public speaking as amplified conversation. “Talk to an audience of many people as you would talk to one person. For effective speaking, try to talk with, not at or to your audience.”

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