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Stand and Deliver

Toastmasters teaches public speaking—and much more.

2010-11 International President Pat Johnson
Mastering the art of public speaking can pay unexpected dividends in confidence and leadership skills.

Alison Berry is doing one of the things that frightens her the most: giving a prepared talk before a group of people she doesn’t know well, or at all.

“I was terrified of speaking in public,” says Berry, who works for the National Apartment Association in Virginia. Nevertheless, in just two months, she would be giving a talk on issues facing her organization before a large gathering in Florida—and she wanted help.

Welcome to Toastmasters International, which has been giving young and mid-career professionals like Berry the opportunity to overcome their fears of public speaking, build leadership skills, and advance their careers for more than 90 years.

Berry gave her carefully-prepared talk to about 20 fellow members of the Last Great Speakers, a

Toastmasters club in northern Virginia. Needless to say, her speech, despite being titled “How to Succeed at Failing,” was a complete success.

Public speaking and leadership
Berry’s story is the classic Toastmaster’s tale. Almost 25 years earlier, the current international president of Toastmasters, Michael Notaro, found himself in a similar predicament—“both terrified and excited” at the prospect of delivering a graduation speech at the University of California at Berkeley. He happened to see a poster for Toastmasters, visited a club, and joined immediately.

Young professionals have no shortage of organizations designed to aid their careers, whether the venerable clubs their fathers belonged to—like Kiwanis and Lions clubs in the United States—or a new generation of online social networking organizations such as LinkedIn.

But Toastmasters International, a nonprofit educational organization built upon a foundation of small local clubs from New Delhi to New York, takes a different approach. Started in California in 1924, Toastmasters is founded on the idea that its members aren’t simply learning how to deliver public speeches, but using public speaking as a tool to build self-confidence and much broader leadership skills.

“Communication isn’t optional,” according to a Toastmaster maxim, one that is hard to dispute in the modern world. Indeed, from the Toastmaster perspective, leadership is communication, whether nonverbal or verbal, whether delivered online or in person.

Today, Toastmasters International has approximately 270,000 members in more than 13,000 clubs around the world.

Role playing
The club’s hour-long meetings, usually held once or twice a week, are tightly choreographed to give its members maximum opportunities for speaking as well as practicing even relatively small leadership roles. A member may be the designated Toastmaster of the Day, a speech evaluator, timer—or serve in one of several leadership positions as club president, vice president for education or membership, or sergeant at arms.

There is even a designated grammarian whose chief task is to count the number of “ah’s” or other verbal tics in the speakers’ presentations. (One of the more common habits among many young speakers: beginning sentences with “so.”)

Each Toastmasters meeting is structured around one to three prepared talks, followed by Table Topics, in which members are given a subject—“What is your favorite movie, and why?”—and must respond with impromptu remarks of one to two minutes. The speech evaluators, timer, and the “ah” tracker then present their reports.

There is one other carefully observed requirement at all meetings: applause after each presentation.

Asia and India
Although more than 70 percent of Toastmasters members still reside in North America, the organization’s center of growth has shifted to the Asia-Pacific region, particularly India, with its large population of English speakers. From 76 clubs and 2,600 members in 2007, India expanded to 242 clubs and more than 7,600 members by the end of 2011.

“Toastmaster growth in India was 13 percent, making it our fastest growing area in the world,” said Executive Director Daniel Rex on a recent trip there. “Our membership in India spans many industries, but our members share similar personal objectives—to become the best communicators and leaders they can.”

Toastmasters anticipates that over the next 10 to 15 years, India and China together may form as many as 10,000 clubs in total.

When Michael Notaro completes his one-year term as international president in 2012, he will be succeeded by John Lau from Malaysia. “Toastmaster programs have enabled me to listen, think and speak authentically,” Lau says.

One challenge for Toastmasters, at least in the United States, has been to update its image as a slightly stodgy club of older men to the growing multicultural organization of younger career professionals that it has become.

In response, Toastmasters has undertaken a rigorous campaign to remake its image. Along with a redesigned logo, the organization is emphasizing that Toastmasters is not about giving talks at business lunches, but training communicators and leaders for the new global, networked generation.

“As the world wakes up to how important international communications is,” says Notaro, “people will discover how powerful Toastmasters International can be in teaching communications skills, then building leadership.”

The old-fashioned ability to stand and deliver a public speech that informs, entertains, inspires or persuades, it turns out, is as critical in our online networked world today as it was in California in 1924—and will continue to be, whatever the future holds.


Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.