When you hear a really good speech, it’s easy to assume that the speaker has some inherent talent for it. But in fact, it’s a skill, and one organization has decided to break it down for people so they can learn it. It’s called Toastmasters and it’s a public speaking organization that’s over 90 years old with nearly 300,000 members across the globe.
Each week, a local branch meets downtown on Mission street. Their tagline? “Where Leaders Are Made,” and tonight there are 10 people hoping they will be the next ones.
One of the first rules of Toastmasters that I learn is: Be aware of time.
Tonight, each person will pitch a business idea. But they need to have a plan. There’s only two minutes, and within those two minutes they should be convincing, speak clearly, and try to sound natural.
Each person stands up when they speak. I quickly learn another rule of Toastmasters: “Introduce yourself immediately, shake hands and make conversation by asking open-ended questions.”
These tips are part of a structured plan meant to break down the art of public speaking into easy, digestible steps. Toastmasters also provides a supportive atmosphere for its participants. So, when each person finishes presenting, the room erupts with applause.
And whenever a new person is introduced, there’s applause. There’s so much applause that it becomes a natural response, in place of smiling or nodding, we clap.
James McBryan has been coming to these meetings every Tuesday night for months. “I’m just a Joe Schmoe member obsessed with public speaking.” McBryan treats toastmasters like a mental workout. When it’s his turn to give a speech, he talks about what he’s gotten out of the program.
“This is the Toastmasters manual, you get it when you become a member and I have a love/hate relationship with it,” he says, holding up the manual.
Many people come to Toastmasters looking for help with presentations at work, like McBryan, who’s a tech entrepreneur. He’s been in many situations where he’s had to make a good first impression in a matter of seconds, so being a confident speaker is something he’s here to perfect.
“For the last 20 speeches here at Hubmasters I haven’t used any notes, I’m note-free!” He announces in his speech. (Hubmasters, by the way is the name of this local group.)
McBryan looks confident as he speaks. He makes eye contact, he uses his hands. He’s a seasoned speaker, but he says he still gets nervous. “I get butterflies, can’t sleep at night, my speech starts morphing,” he admits. “In other words, I’m at Toastmasters because I’m an anxious person and I want to relieve anxiety.”
Baby Steps to the Podium
According to Toastmasters, you can get over that anxiety by exercising confidence, kind of like a muscle. So after every few speeches, there’s an exercise round called “table topics.” These random conversation-starters help everyone get warmed up to speaking in front of people. Today, it’s a hypothetical job interview. McBryan poses as the employer and turns to Maureen Bogues who’s posing as the applicant.
“Why are you better than the other candidates applying for this job?” asks McBryan.
Maureen responds confidently. “I’m applying for a marketing position in a theater,” she says, and continues to list her qualifications.
Then, McBryan turns to me. Everyone that comes to a toastmasters meeting is urged to take part. When I finally agree, the group responds the best way it knows how. I stand. That’s another rule I learn: All Toastmasters must stand when they talk.
My hands feel a little clammy. My heart starts racing faster. I wonder if my upper lip will do that twitchy thing it sometimes does when speaking in front of a full room.
I tell the group that I’m interviewing to be a server at a yogurt stand, and surprisingly, once I start talking the nerves settle. I talk about the toppings I’d offer, the blueberries, the chocolates. I tell the group that I would increase sales, and I realize that once I get going, it does get easier. It doesn’t really matter what anyone says at the podium, the key is to feel comfortable saying it.
After everyone’s finished pitching and participating in the table topic, it’s time for feedback. Someone is assigned to take notes on grammar (that’s “the grammarian”) and there’s a timer, an “ah” counter, and an evaluator.
Some of the participants frown at the amount of ah’s and um’s they were cited for; a couple of people shake their heads in disbelief. But it doesn’t seem to bring them down. Those same people volunteer to give their very first speech at next week’s meeting. That drive to keep working on this is key to Toastmasters. Once you complete 10 speeches, then and only then, can you receive the ultimate Toastmaster prize: A certificate with your new title: “Competent Communicator.”