Freelance Writer
Raise a Glass. Make a Toast. Just Make Sure You Don’t Sound Like an Idiot
10.19.06 | No Comments

In Worcester Magazine, September 2004

Public speaking scares the bejeebies out of most people. To a certain degree, the idea of standing in front of a group of people, their eyes piercing what feels like their very soul, is enough to make a stomach do a triple flip.

Toastmasters was established to erase that fear. A national group, the Central Massachusetts branch is based in Worcester and holds its meetings Wednesdays at the Regency Suites Condos.

“I heard about it on a commercial,” says Omar Williams, who joined in 2003 and does PR for the group, “and I wanted to work on my public speaking and learn to deal with people one on one.”

Williams says there are a variety of reasons why people are drawn to Toastmasters. Some positively stink at speaking in public. Some are so scared that it is like a therapy session. And some are already making speeches in their public lives, but need to improve on them.

“All walks of life are drawn to this,” says Williams. “Young, old, male, female – it’s a very diverse group. I’m an internal auditor, for instance, and you wouldn’t think I’d be someone interested in public speaking. But we all bring something different to the table.”

So Worcester Magazine

checked out a meeting a few weeks ago. In one of the back rooms at the Regency, a group of about 20 gathered. To pay for the room, everyone orders dinner, and the meeting runs from 7-9 p.m., in strict time.

Nationally speaking, Toastmasters has more female members. Apparently in Worcester, the women already know how to speak. This group is predominantly men (there are only two women here), there’s a podium at the front, a Toastmasters emblem swinging behind it – so at times, it feels like an Elks or American Legion lodge.

Each week, members are assigned in advance certain roles for that meeting. For instance, this night, Fred Nathan is the “Timer,” confidently dangling a big stoplight to clock the speech times. The meeting starts with the official Toastmaster of the evening, commenting on the night and inviting guests. Someone shares a thought. Someone shares a joke.

And on this night, three people are picked to spontaneously speak on a topic. John Keeton, a lawyer who has been a member of the group for years, takes part in this topic – “fact or fiction.” Keeton, who says he joined Toastmasters initially because he was preparing for an important speech, shares a story from his childhood, explaining why he landed the nickname “Honest John.”

The second hour of the meeting is consumed by the three featured speakers and their respective evaluators. Each gets up and speaks, their specific evaluator stands up and says what he or she thought was good or bad about it. Al Wheeler, the club’s VP of Education, is the “grammar cop” for the evening, explaining to speakers that too many “uhs,” or any “he goes” or a Worcester accent can muck an otherwise good speech.

Unlike some other areas, the Central Toastmasters has that unique challenge of tackling our rather, well, stupid sounding accent. Professional speakers should not sound like a Bob’s Furniture ad. “Perhaps if Ted Kennedy had had a chance or good advice,” says Wheeler, “to put additional work into his delivery, he might have been President. Count the number of ‘uhs’ in his impromptus.”

Mark LaPete, who joined Toastmasters in October, is the night’s “General Evaluator,” commenting on all the speakers as well as their evaluators. The evaluations by come across as fair and complimentary, but also constructive, with specific improvements directed at each.

“I’ve heard that people have left other clubs because evaluations are too soft,” says Williams. “You want to give them constructive feedback so they can improve. That’s what’s unique about this. You get immediate feedback whether you’re playing a small role in the meeting or a large one.”

To achieve the level of “Certified Toastmaster” with the group, a participant has to eventually complete 10 speeches. Starting with the “Icebreaker” speech, throughout attending meetings, these speeches progress and are designed to improve upon body gestures, authoritative delivery and timing. At present, Central Toastmasters has about 35 active members. It costs $16 bucks to join and $3 a month to keep on keeping on.

LaPete has completed three of his 10 speeches. To him, Toastmasters is more about personal improvement. “It’s about challenging myself to get up in front of people,” says LaPete, “and speak clearly and confidently. I wanted to clear up my language. I know the biggest improvement so far is in my comfort level. The first time I did it, I was really scared but by my third, I started concentrating more on technique rather than the fact that I was in front of people.”

That, essentially, is the goal of Toastmasters: to give people a safe and encouraging place to get better at talking in front of others.

You can find out more about how it works, and how to join, at centraltoastmasters.org

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