Masters of ceremonies

Local professionals hone the art of public speaking through Toastmasters.

Quick: Stand up and talk about your favorite holiday food for one minute.

Many would react with sweaty palms and a sudden dry throat, but not Toastmaster David Leveille.

He is nervous, yet speaks clearly about the delights of his wife’s candied yams as his audience nods encouragement. Afterwards, he describes the experience like an amusement park ride.

“The anxiety builds like your car going up the rollercoaster,” Leveille said. “The hardest part is standing up (to talk), but once I start speaking, I calm down and it’s fun, a thrill.”

Experienced speakers and the petrified alike join Toastmasters to improve their communication skills. Business professionals from real estate, marketing and consulting make up a good half of local members; others join simply to better themselves.

Two groups have formed on the island in the last two years: the Bainbridge Island Toastmasters Club and a group called U Speak Easy.

Donna Zajonc, who served three terms in the Oregon Legislature in the 1980s, was already an accomplished speaker when she joined. Toastmasters, she said, gives her a chance to practice, and “to always get better and improve.”

Zajonc says public speaking comes from the strength of our inner voice, and “the more we practice listening to our inner voice and practice speaking it with authority every day – one on one or to an audience -- the better we get.”

“People may believe that public speaking is for (speaking) professionals,” Zajonc said. “But all of us improve our ability to live in this world by speaking well.”

Visiting a meeting is almost like attending a tea party. Members take the floor with a formal “Madam Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and most welcome guests,” but the clubs are anything but stuffy.

Although meetings are structured, they are good-humored and friendly.

“We spend as much time laughing as on public speaking,” said Jim Sutton, who does marketing for a turkey farm.

Sutton can’t get enough, and attends three clubs.

The groups are run entirely by volunteers, but progress is tracked to a set of manuals and guides developed by Toastmasters International, a California-based, non-profit organization.

Membership fees are $36-$48 for six months, reasonable considering that professional, one-day seminars can run well over $500.

The Communication and Leadership Program with which each new member starts lays out a series of 10 speeches of 5-7 minutes.

Upon completion, the member earns a “Competent Toastmaster” designation; more advanced courses delve into domain-specific speeches or offer a leadership track.

Each area in the manual focuses on one aspect of effective public speaking, with the topic left up to the lecturer.

Speech No. 6, “Work with Words,” urges simplicity – “need” instead of “require,” “next” instead of “subsequent” – and how to use vivid, descriptive terms. Speech No. 9, “Persuade With Power,” coaches speakers on tactics to take when trying to woo an audience.

‘Face time’

Bob Linz, president of Bainbridge Island Toastmasters, urges his group to take every chance to put themselves in front of people and talk – what he calls “face time.”

“A common misconception is that finishing the 10 speeches makes you an expert speaker,” said Linz, a real estate investment advisor. “It’s important to speak frequently in front of other people, and the Toastmasters Clubs provide a supportive and safe environment for that learning and practice.”

Members exercise listening skills while providing encouragement and feedback to each speaker.

“Everyone gets better through exposure to, and observing other speakers,” Sutton said.

The “table topics” portion of the meeting asks members to speak for several minutes, impromptu, on questions like “What do you do with turkey leftovers?” That helps members learn to think on their feet.

Those “uh”s, “um”s and other filler words – the bane of effective speaking – are tracked by the dreaded “ah” counter, who reports at meeting conclusion the number of meaningless syllables uttered by each person.

Most importantly, Toastmasters wants to encourage people to keep coming.

“You have to go out of your comfort zone,” said Nancy Ferrell. “But seeing your progress builds your self-confidence.”

Sutton recalls one of the first people he met at a meeting could not even stand up and say her name; she blossomed over many meetings.

Lois Watford, area governor, emphasizes that Toastmasters is focused on fulfilling the individual goals of the members.

In the U Speak Easy group, Watford asks new members about their goals, then plans the meetings for the year.

Fast-trackers may want to speak every meeting to finish their Competent Toastmaster level quickly; others may wait several months before making their first speech.

“We never force anyone to do something they aren’t comfortable with yet,” Watford said. “After all, this is a volunteer club.”

Members say they are enthusiastic about their progress.

“My articulation has cleared up,” said Janet Mullins, who has only been attending since the summer. “But it’s not just the words. Body movements can be distracting or detract (from the talk).”

Zajonc credits her new approach to conversations from her Toastmasters experiences.

“I can now think about what I want to say before I say it,” she said. “When I speak (now), I’ve thought of how I want to be in a conversation, not just what I want to say.”

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