I’m the type who likes personal challenges. Painfully shy at parties? Afraid of speaking in front of groups of people? Take some steps to overcome it—the ballsier the better.
So in 2000, when I still lived in Sedona, I took improv-theater classes, then tried my hand at stand-up comedy (talk about “dying on stage”), and finally started facilitating manifestation workshops.
But I hadn’t done anything in a long time and was itching to counteract my self-imposed hermit/freelancer life with some hefty social interaction.
The Toastmaster Club International is an organization steeped in tradition--the first-ever Toastmasters meeting took place in the YMCA building in Santa Ana, CA, on October 22, 1924—so I expected the meeting to be a rather stiff and formal affair. Suits, ties, the whole nine yards.
Far from it. Even though one or two of the male members wore suits and ties, it was probably due to the fact that they’d come directly from work. Otherwise, the dress code seemed rather casual and the atmosphere even more so.
I’m more the free-spirit/wannabe-hippie-but-born-too-late kinda gal, so firm structure and discipline is usually not my thing. Nonetheless, the firm structure of the Toastmaster meeting felt constructive, not detrimental, to me.
It started with Scott Friedman, the acting president, who opened the meeting, greeted the members and guests, and introduced Toastmaster Brad Hays. (Each meeting has a different toastmaster.)
The toastmaster’s task is to run the meeting, introduce the speakers and other program points, and pick a favorite topic that he then uses to sprinkle neat little factoids throughout the program.
Brad chose “famous Vermonters.” Did you know serial killer Ted Bundy was born in Burlington, VT, and that both Mormon founder Joseph Smith and Mormon leader Brigham Young were Vermonters?
Second in line was Wordmaster Kathi Tynan, who picked “risible” as the Word of the Day. Using that word in a speech gets the speaker extra points.
First speaker of the night was Suzanne DeJohn with an emotionally intense Icebreaker speech titled, “The Language of the Garden,” which revolved around her love of gardening as a way to connect to her now deceased mother. And yeah, I have to admit, I got a little choked up toward the end. Thank God for pocket-size Kleenex packs.
The Icebreaker is the first real speech of a new member and should be four to six minutes long. Each speaker of the night, by the way, gets assigned an “evaluator” who takes notes and at the end of the meeting evaluates the speech for clarity, voice, structure, etc.
I was amazed how useful I found the speeches. I’d thought this whole speech thing would be more an intellectual exercise, but I hadn’t expected to really get anything out of the speeches themselves.
I really loved Nancy Gamble’s “Pressure or Stress? It’s Up to You,” in which she talked about the difference between relaxed and stressed-out people. What makes someone feel extreme stress is apparently rumination—the habit of thinking negative thoughts about a situation and obsessing about them.
If you can just manage to stay in the present as much as possible, Nancy said, rumination ceases, and you’ll have a much happier and more carefree life. Funny, I of all people should know that—I’ve taught it to others many times—but the human potential for total obliviousness is really quite amazing.
Next up was Thomas Martin III with his exuberant speech on how to switch your frame of reference so you can keep expanding your boundaries, followed by Scott Friedman with an entertaining speech on the evils of pharmaceutical commercials.
The timers then announced how long everyone had taken to finish their speech, if they were over the allotted time or under.
The best part of the evening—and the one everyone at a Toastmasters Club meeting seems to be waiting for, which is probably the reason it comes toward the end—was the Table Topics.
Usually, the Table Topics master (yes, there’s a role for everything) will ask for volunteers and assign them a topic for a one- to two-minute impromptu speech. Table topics can range from “Dear Abby” questions to holiday themes or having to define unknown words from the dictionary (kind of like Balderdash).
This time, Table Topics Master Eric Higley—who has a baffling resemblance to a young Robin Williams—decided to mix it up a bit and asked for two volunteers at a time to perform an improv skit.
Loudmouth that I am and with my previous experience in improv theater, of course I couldn’t resist. I was paired with Logan, a fourteen-year-old kid who’d come as a guest with his father, a Toastmaster member.
Our situation was that we were stuck in an elevator, announced Eric. So we hit the buttons and panicked and tried to claw our way out. Finally the elevator started moving again, all the way up to the forty-sixth floor… but wait, the hotel only had twelve floors! So we jumped for it. The end.
Then came the evaluations for the four main speeches, a quiz about the evening’s trivia, the Wizard of Ah’s (who counts the number of times speakers use filler words like “um”), and the president’s closing remarks.
Here’s another reason why I like this firm structure: With the formalities set in stone and thus out of the way, you can pay more attention to the content of the meeting. Plus, almost everyone present had a role to play, which made for a very interactive and participatory meeting.
So, in a nutshell, I think the Toastmasters Club is a pretty darn nice invention… and if you stick with it, you can learn how to speak in an engaging way, build your confidence, and have plain old fun in a group of friendly, kindred spirits.
I think I’ll be a member.