Give a speech? No way!

by Niall Finn –

“There are two kinds of speakers,” wrote the great American novelist and humorist Mark Twain, “those that are nervous and those that are liars.” A gifted and well-prepared lecturer who spoke at meetings around the world, Mark Twain knew all about nerves. For those with no experience, even the thought of standing up in front of a group of people can be terrifying. According to research, the idea of speaking before an audience frightens many people even more than the thought of dying. But what if there was a way of learning the techniques of effective public speaking in a safe and stimulating environment? Gradually building skills through supportive feedback from the people listening to you? For 90 years, this has been the role of Toastmasters clubs.

Imagine you are a guest at a Toastmasters club meeting. Friendly faces welcome you before a club officer hands you the agenda and explains how the evening will unfold. “There are three parts to a typical Toastmaster evening and the first is about to get underway; we call it “Table Topics.” There is an expectant hush as the club member who has accepted the role of running the meeting, the Toastmaster of the Evening, calls to the lectern the Table Topics Master.

In turn, four members are asked, with no prior warning, to speak for two minutes on a topic she has chosen (until the 1970s, Toastmasters was men-only but now as many women as men are joining clubs). It is no accident that highly experienced Toastmasters are given a more challenging topic than newer members but all make a good attempt at organising their thoughts to speak coherently on the topic. One comments afterwards that it was good practice for an upcoming business meeting.

Part two of the meeting, three prepared speeches around six minutes in length, follows seamlessly. The speakers have chosen the topics themselves but each speech is actually a training project designed to develop the speaker’s skills in a specific aspect of public speaking. This evening, one speaker is focusing on vocal variety, using changes in the pitch and speed of his voice to maintain interest and emphasise key points of his speech on youth unemployment.

Another has tackled the project on audiovisual aids, with a PowerPoint presentation on vehicle maintenance. For the third speaker, it is her very first speech, the so-called “icebreaker” designed to allow the speaker to introduce herself to the club, and the applause is especially warm because every Toastmaster remembers their first speech and how nervous they felt.

“This third section of the meeting”, says a member beside you, “is what really powers the progress in learning to speak. We call it ‘evaluation’, and it is all about feedback. For every prepared speech there is an evaluator who stresses the successful aspects of the speech and makes suggestions for improvement. In some clubs, every person attending gives written feedback to the speaker.” Even as a guest, you can’t help noticing that the overwhelming tone is supportive and that the evaluator’s comments are striking a chord with other members as well as with the speaker.

Toastmasters began in California, initially with the aim of helping young people to make the most of their potential by learning to express themselves clearly. For nearly half a century it remained an American organisation but recent years have seen it growing particularly quickly in other parts of the world, especially Europe and Asia.

There are now 14,650 clubs in 126 countries. Growth of new clubs in Europe has been so rapid that two years ago it became necessary to split District 59, previously all of continental Western

Europe into two districts. The recent district conference in Porto in Portugal drew more than 200 Toastmasters from the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

Although Toastmasters clubs once operated entirely in English, many are now bilingual and others operate entirely in the language of the country in which they are based.

From my own experience in four clubs, two in Luxembourg and two in Greece, people join Toastmasters for a variety of reasons. Many have a fear of public speaking but know that they will soon have to give a presentation or a speech in a work setting or at a private function. Intriguingly, many of these people stay members for years after the event that initially terrified them.

In an English-speaking club, many non-native speakers have joined specifically to improve their spoken English (just as I joined a French-speaking club to improve that language).

Whether entrepreneurs, managers or academics, their career often clearly benefits. Quite simply, they have learnt at Toastmasters to express their ideas more clearly, while their greater fluency in English has then given those ideas the greatest possible impact.

These generally younger members in their 20s, 30s and 40s are in many clubs joined by retired people keen to keep their brains (and tongues…) active.

In addition to learning speaking skills through a well thought out series of project manuals, a system that allows every member to progress at his or her own chosen pace, members also have the opportunity to develop leadership as they volunteer for the various roles in each club meeting (Table Topics Master, evaluator, timer, et cetera) and in the general running of the club.

There are several flourishing Toastmasters clubs in Athens and more recently in Thessaloniki. As yet, Crete does not have a club but there would seem to be considerable potential for founding one.

Among the many expatriates already living in the Chania area, for example, there may well be former Toastmasters and I would like to take this opportunity of asking them, and indeed anyone interested in attending a Toastmasters meeting, to contact me.

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