“Before, I never could remember the end of a joke,” said Mary Smith. “But now I can tell a joke and remember the whole thing.” Because Smith occasionally presents programs to large groups as part of her job with the Texoma Council of Governments, her supervisor urged her to join the Toastmasters to improve her public speaking skills.
Smith said she resisted. She was like most of us, more than content to sit back quietly and let someone else do the talking. With reluctance, she finally joined the group. “I was pushed into itscreaming and hollering, ‘No, I don’t want to do this!’” Smith said, and then added, “It’s been the best six years of my life.”
Public speaking can cause the most talkative of people to become tongue-tied. It is perennially in the top-ten list of the most common phobias. It even has a name, glossophobia, from the Greek words for “tongue” and “fear.” At the core of that fear is the dread of being humiliated or judged harshly.
Abraham Lincoln was nervous when speaking before crowds, and Winston Churchill, the man who, as Edward R. Murrow wrote, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, a spearhead of hope for freedom and the world,” worked though a stammer and severe stage fright as a young member of parliament. Churchill would practice tirelessly to memorize speeches he was scheduled to give in the House of Commons and make copious notes—reading from a text is against the rules—to help him along.
Abe and Winnie would have found a friend and some help had they known Ralph Smedley. He started Toastmasters (Smedley Club No. 1) at the YMCA in Santa Ana, California, in 1924. The club’s success in attracting people and helping them overcome their qualms about speaking in public led to more clubs, and in 1932 the organization was incorporated. Today, there are more than 250,000 members of Toastmasters in 12,000 clubs in 106 countries.
“We create an environment where people can feel comfortable,” said Lee Clayton, Distinguished Toastmaster and member of Sherman Daybreak Toastmasters. “We assign an experienced person as a mentor. We want them to feel safe. You can always find positives about what someone said. It’s about being willing to stand up there.”
Jeff Walton, president of the early morning group in Sherman, echoed that sentiment. “We’re there for them to win. We’re rooting for them. People can learn public speaking at their own pace—however quickly or slowly they prefer.”
People have different reasons for joining Toastmasters. For some, it is about losing the fear factor. For others, it’s a job-related jump. When Joy Cole joined nine years ago, it was because she had recently divorced and was in an unsatisfying, dead-end job. “I was crying before I went to work and after I came home,” Cole said. Her life was filled with negativity, and she needed some positive feedback. She got that and more at Toastmasters, and sometime later, after hearing her speak, the director of the Center for Workplace Learning at Grayson County College recruited her to handle corporate training needs for area businesses.
It is all about getting the confidence to speak your piece to others, but getting there often has some bumpy spots. Even an experienced speaker such as Lee Clayton occasionally has a glitch if he forgets the basics. Recently, “I froze in the middle of a speech,” he said. “I had to pull out my notesI had moved away from my notes. I just froze.”
Toastmasters meetings are structured and organized, with an agenda and assigned roles. A Distinguished Toastmaster introduces speakers. Evaluators critique them and use positive comments to help speakers improve. One evaluator is assigned to one speaker.
The grammarian counts the number of times a speaker says “ah,” “uh,” and other filler words. Filler words are unconsciously spoken utterances that people use to fill the empty spaces. The timekeeper sets and monitors the time of each speech—usually five to seven minutes. After the speeches, the evaluator and grammarian have their say.
Working from prepared texts is fine if a speaker has time and opportunity to prepare them, but often, people are called on to speak off the cuff. Toastmasters practice their techniques for this sort of ad lib oration in an exercise called Table Topics. Drop an unnecessary “ya know,” or “I mean,” or “er” and someone in the audience is likely to ring a bell or slap the table to highlight the faux pas.
Mary Smith suggests that, when called on for impromptu remarks, you find a way to relate your comments to something personal. “Talk about something you know about—and that’s your life,” she said. Her own speeches are often about her parents, children, and grandchildren. She said she pours out her feelings in her speeches. “I think the more emotion and yourself you put in, the better for the audience”
Since Toastmasters is all about self-improvement and growth, individuals can participate simply to overcome shyness and be content with that considerable accomplishment, or they can take public speaking to another level and work their way up though the Toastmasters hierarchy of honors, awards, and competitive speaking. The highest honor, World Champion of Public Speaking, is given annually in August at the Toastmasters convention. The reigning champion, LaShunda Rundles, is from Dallas.
Few people ever completely overcome the nervous anticipation that precedes a public performance. The butterflies are always going to be there, but as Joy Cole said, “In Toastmasters, we train the butterflies to fly in formation.”
Toastmasters Websites & Meeting Times
Van Alstyne Voices meets at 7 p.m. each Monday at Grayson County Community College South Campus, Room 112, in Van Alstyne. Contact Juanita Hazelton at
903-482-5991 for more information.
High Noon Toastmasters meets each Tuesday at noon at Grace Lutheran Church in Denison. Contact Teresa Foster at 903-957-7408.
Sherman Daybreak Toastmasters meets at 6:30 a.m. every Thursday at The Renaissance residences in Sherman. Contact Lee Clayton at 903-465-3901 or visit www.sherman.freetoasthost.org.
Spoke Masters meets each Tuesday at 8 a.m. at Texoma Council of Governments in Sherman. Contact Mary Smith at 903-813-3514 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Texoma Toastmasters meets the second and fourth Monday each month at 7 p.m. at The Renaissance residences in Sherman. Contact 903-815-5284.
Bon Hams meets the first and third Thursday each month at noon at the First Presbyterian Church in Bonham. Contact 903-587-8019.