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Afraid of public speaking? Toastmasters can help

What should people do who fear public speaking even more than their own death, or poisonous snakes? It is the number one fear in our nation, with death and snakes lining up as second and third, according to Bill Slach, a 20-year member and past District Governor of Toastmasters International in Kitsap County.

There are ten Toastmasters clubs in Kitsap, and they exist to give people a safe place to learn and practice how to speak in public, beginning with a one-minute, self-introductory ice-breaker, and if desired, over time, entering speaking contests at the international level.

Slach, now retired from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, first joined Toastmasters to improve his speaking skills, hoping it might give him a “leg up on others in my group in terms of promotion.” He believes it was a successful move. He also jokes that Toastmasters is an approved training course at PSNS, and allowed him an extra 20 minutes during lunch away from his desk.

Many people seek self-improvement, but others join at the recommendation of their boss.

Toastmasters International’s vision includes, “Through our member clubs, people throughout the world can improve their communication and leadership skills, and find the courage to change.” At the club level, a supportive, safe environment is created, wherein members might take the risk of public speaking without fear of failure.

A typical meeting lasts about an hour, and includes a brief business meeting, a couple of prepared speeches for all to hear, and also permits everyone in attendance to give a short, impromptu “table talk” on an assigned topic. Over time, members assist one another as they work one by one on various elements of public speaking, such as organization, word choice, grammar, gestures, props, persuasiveness and so on.

There are several roles taken by members at a meeting, and these rotate, with all being encouraged to take part. One may be the jokemaster, the timer, or the grammarian , among others.

Speakers are evaluated with both positive reinforcement and tips for improvement. Members learn things that will translate directly to work, such as thinking on their feet, honing listening skills and learning how to evaluate employees in helpful ways.

When Laura Melrose serves as grammarian, she gives a “word of the day” at the beginning of the meeting, asking each person to weave that word into his or her speech. She compliments picturesque word choices, while pointing out faux pas and slang that should be avoided.

Toastmasters clubs bring together an assortment of people. In Kitsap, these include bankers, hospital workers, caterers, shipyard employees, writers, Realtors, ministers, attorneys and architects. Most business organizations are for those in the same profession, Slach points out, whereas this cross-pollination of diverse people and ideas enhances their experience and permits community networking. “It is really kind of cool,” adds Melrose.

Slach tells of one new member’s first attempt to speak. She actually fainted when going forward, repeating this behavior three times before successfully completing her initial self-introduction.

Another woman burst into tears during a one-minute table talk. Less than a year later, she has become “an extraordinary speaker,” Melrose says, and is now in a management position with some 35 people under her professional leadership. “It is inspirational being around her.”

People continue to come back because it is fun. Slach says it meets his social needs, now that he’s retired.

There are about 9,000 clubs worldwide with 250,000 members. As people increase in their abilities, they may earn the right to attend a club working on higher-level skills.

Linda Thomson's picture
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