Building Your Public Speaking Confidence with Toastmasters
Raise a Toast
By Jordan Venema
For many people, there’s nothing much higher on their list of things-I’d-rather-not-do than giving a public speech. Yet that’s exactly what hundreds of Central Valley residents are doing willingly once a week through small social clubs called Toastmasters.
Toastmasters International is a 100-year-old organization with roots in Southern California that promotes and develops leadership and communication among its members by challenging them to do the very thing most people dread: give a public speech. Dreadful as that might sound to some, the group must be doing something right. There are as many as 20 local groups from Hanford to Porterville and Visalia to Fresno.
Each meeting, organized and maintained by its members, is really pretty straightforward. The meeting begins, a scheduled presenter gives a speech, and guests and members are given the opportunity to offer feedback. If anything, the group almost sounds like the kind of speech class you might take in college.
“It is,” says Monica Story, area director for Toastmasters, then adds, “almost, except it’s more self-directing.” She probably also could have added “fun.”
Yes, fun is a word that both Story and other converted speech-enthusiasts would use to describe their Toastmaster experience, though many would also probably agree that wasn’t the first word that came to mind when they first attended a Toastmaster meeting.
Jason Salazar, 21, the vice president of education for a Central Valley Toastmasters of Fresno, admits he only joined (at 18) because of obligation.
“My mom said I had to,” he says with a laugh. “It was intimidating, and I didn’t want to go.”
Now, trying to sum up the experience, Salazar says Toastmasters has given him three things: “encouragement, success, and confidence.” Though Salazar didn’t see much benefit initially, it has since provided the “opportunity to grow as an individual and citizen in society, and to understand community thoughts and ideas better.
“You just find a positive and encouraging atmosphere, with individuals who are there to support one another, and help overcome their fears of public speaking,” he says.
Story first attended a Visalia Toastmasters group seven years ago. “I was invited to an open house and I was hooked. I went back and haven’t stopped since.”
Story, who now oversees the development of multiple Central Valley clubs, says each group has its own distinct personality.
“We have people 18 to 80 years old,” she says, while some groups are more polished and professional and others a little more casual.
To hear Story and Salazar talk about their own development as public speakers, you’d think Toastmasters offered some secret technique that transforms wobbly-tongued amateurs into silver-tongued orators. But the method is pretty simple, according to Story: repetition.
“The more you do it, the better you get,” she says. “Basically it’s getting up and speaking in front of people, and most people, as you know, would rather have a tooth pulled. But it’s an extremely safe and fun environment.”
So really, it’s not that Toastmasters has a secret method, but that Toastmasters itself is the secret. Most people simply just haven’t heard of it, which is why Story encourages people to visit.
“I always tell people to try out two or three different meetings,” the times and locations of which can be found on Toastmasters’ website. She assures visitors they’ll not only be welcome, but comfortable, because like guests, “we all started out not knowing anything.”
For those who, like Story, decide to become members right off the bat, membership dues are about $60 for six months, or about $10 a month pro-rated, and $20 for books and materials.
The reading materials and manuals are invaluable when compared to the benefit the Toastmasters provides its members. Story says, “It helps people get through interviews. I just recently got a job as a human resources manager,” despite not having experience. “I know that I got the job because I aced the interview, and I know that Toastmasters is the reason that I aced that interview.”
Moreover, Story says Toastmasters is just a really great opportunity to meet people.
“It’s really a social club, too,” she says. “After a meeting we usually go to somebody’s house and play chess, or barbecue, and there are people in this group that will be my lifelong friends.” And it’s likely those friendships won’t require an oral presentation outside of the weekly Toastmaster meeting.
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