According to the Wall Street Journal, fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is the No. 1 fear in America. Fear of death is No. 2! Although this finding is rather shocking, most of us can relate to the discomfort of speaking in a public forum. It is estimated that 75 percent of all people experience some form of anxiety when asked to speak in public.
I certainly belong in this category and so when Jim Rawcliffe invited me to come to Room 127 Fenton Hall at SUNY Fredonia to learn about the organization Toastmasters International and to observe the International competition the following week, I was curious and agreed.
There is no doubt that Jim Rawcliffe, a member for 23 years and longest standing member of the local chapter of Toastmasters, is committed to this organization and its mission to promote competent verbal communication. As a former Chief Financial Officer of Red Wing he appreciates the importance of leadership skills and clear communication. He testifies that he wishes he had known about Toastmasters while he was still in England in his youth. Many times throughout his professional career he has been called upon to make presentations and how much easier it might have been with the proper practice and guidance.
OBSERVER?Photos by Skeeter Tower
Area 14 Governor Ned Lindstrom addresses the audience while contest winners Karen Aubrecht and Bryan Williams look on.
Contest Master Jim Holton explains the rules of the speaking contest to the audience.
Toastmasters has been in existence since 1924 when Ralph C. Smedley, Director of the YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif., set up a workshop to help the young men learn to become better speakers. Toastmasters are those who propose toasts and introduce speakers so it seemed a natural title for the group. Today the organization has grown to 292,000 members worldwide with about 14,350 clubs in 122 countries.
The Toastmasters Club on SUNY campus is open to the public and ready to take anyone aspiring to become a better public speaker or to refine leadership skills. The local club, Concord Spellbinders, was established in 1986 by David Larson, Joyce Haines, and 18 others. Larson recently helped set up speechcrafting as an offering for students at SUNY Fredonia campus.
There is no key instructor in Toastmasters. Each and every participant has a role to play. Members evaluate each other in an efficient, easy flowing meeting focused on components of speechmaking. One's first speech is called "The icebreaker" and its topic is the person giving it.
The evening I visited, a participant had been assigned to devise a Table Topic, a one to two minute extemporaneous talk on the question "Suppose you could go back to age ten. What advice would you give yourself?" The tradition is that every member speaks at a meeting. Each member took a turn at the lectern addressing this topic without notes, while the others took notes to evaluate the impromptu presentation. Applause was generous and support was obvious.
Each meeting has an assigned "timer" who operates a signal system of lights. Green indicates the minimum time has been met; orange indicates one minute remains and red, time is up. Staying on schedule is critical. There is also a designated General Evaluator, who calls for reports, monitors how the entire meeting goes and provides evaluation of the leader. There is a Toastmaster, who introduces each segment of the meeting and each speaker. There is a grammarian who is listening for proper use of the English language. Another role is Word Master, one who introduces a new word of the day and then keeps track of which speakers use the word and if it is used correctly. (The word of the evening was "ubiquitous") A glass jar sits near the podium filled with loose change. This is the collection of the "Ah-Counter" who is keeping track of each extraneous um, ah, and, you know. A 5-cent charge is made for each "verbal crutch." There is a 25-cent fee for not including the new word in the presentation.
Designated roles rotate meeting to meeting so each member gains experience in each leadership position. Longer, prepared speeches are made; some designed to practice use of media during the talk, others demonstrating research, or the power of persuasion. A manual is available to guide each of ten areas of skill at the time of preparation. Each member's manual is handed over to another member during the meeting for evaluation as the presentation is made. Aside from this main evaluation each member passes in little slips of paper at the end of the speeches with comments directed to the presenter. It is very smooth, friendly and encouraging and, I might add, quite effective.
There were nine participants the evening I visited; some students and some community members. Some had been attending for awhile and demonstrated this with more obvious ease, appropriate hand gestures, pauses, and expressiveness, proper balance of volume, pitch and rate. Newer members consulted with mentors chosen ahead of time to coach them in difficult areas. One member confided that the mentor was the most important part of the program for him. Another participant gave a rather rousing presentation, well researched and, like all the others, received a round of applause. I couldn't help but notice as the little slips passed me on the table that among other comments he was getting feedback about removing his hoodie. I asked Grace Sam, one of the participants, who has attended both the Dale Carnegie program and Toastmasters International, which program she found most useful. Her reply was a succinct "both." Dale Carnegie teaches the skills to function comfortably in the world; Toastmasters teaches the skills to communicate comfortably in the world
The format follows what a proper, efficient business meeting would demand. Parliamentary procedure and gracious exchanges between each speaker and the toastmaster are the norm.
There is the expectation, called the Toastmaster Promise, that each member is committed to self-development, to the club and to the other members. Members are expected to attend meetings regularly, to prepare speeches to the best of their ability, to prepare for meetings, to provide helpful, constructive evaluations, to help others learn and grow, to serve as an officer when called upon, to treat other members with courtesy and respect, and to bring guests to club meetings so they can see the benefits of membership. Once the basic manual is complete there remain advanced levels of refinement.
Aside from the challenge to oneself to overcome the fear of speaking in public, there are opportunities to compete with others for recognition of achievement. Recently such a contest for Area Fourteen Toastmasters International (Jamestown, East Aurora, Olean, Fredonia, Fisher Price and Moog ) was hosted by Concord Spellbinders SUNY Fredonia in Room 105 Fenton Hall. Six different clubs competed in two areas. Jutta Rawcliffe, president of the Concord Spellbinders Toastmaster Club (Fredonia), welcomed members and observers. Jim Holton, contest master, reminded participants of an informal rule of speaking "Be brief, be sincere and be gone!" Jim Rawcliffe served as chief judge. Chief Timer was Division Governor Marcy Dexheimer aided by a student. Nancy Jager and Amy Vercant served as counters.
First came a two-minute Table Talk, with five speakers competing with the topic "I look forward to spring." Contestants were Karen Aubrecht, Kim Bonnett, Kate Ebersole, Nancy Phillips and Bryan Williams. Kate Ebersole, a member for six years, won first place. Brian Williams, a SUNY student from Concord Spellbinders, also placed in the competition.
Following a break, five contestants each spoke for five to seven minutes in the International Contest. These included Philip Colarusso, Kate Ebersole, Mark Hess, Matt Petroski and Nancy Phillips. Most of these competitors had belonged to Toastmasters for five years or more.
The talks were very moving, inspirational and cathartic. As a family therapist in my previous life I noted the value of some of these stories of personal experience delivered with passion and conviction, evoking both tears and laughter. Matt Petroski, the winner of the International contest, had his young daughter in the audience filming his talk which dealt with his shyness as a boy and his drive to overcome this handicap to model for his children. He can certainly claim to have achieved his goal.
In these times of job scarcity and need to achieve in the workplace it is reassuring to know there is a place to go to hone one's skills in a supportive, non-judgmental environment. Freeing oneself from anxiety related to speaking in public is a lifetime bonus. We can be grateful for those who give of their time to establish such a club and to mentor others. Concord Spellbinders meets at 7 p.m. on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of the month in Room 127 Fenton Hall SUNY Fredonia campus and helps people become part of the 25 percent of folks mostly free of anxiety when speaking in public. Courage is taking the first step.