SOME MIGHT SEE giving public speeches and getting feedback on them as a form of masochism.
But for those who push through the fear, speaking can be rewarding. And with practice, your audiences can start to feel like friends.
That’s the idea behind Toastmasters International, a nonprofit with clubs around the world, including quite a few in Seattle. Some, like the Seattle General meeting Thursdays at 7 a.m. downtown, are geared toward working professionals. The Wallingford Toastmasters club I met with at noon on a recent Wednesday was a bit more laid-back.
This club has met since 1960. Members credit one of the club’s founders, the late Dick Hendricks, with creating a culture that emphasizes the positive. Hendricks didn’t retire from Toastmasters until a couple years before he died, at age 108, in 2017.
“There’s no arguing,” the day’s toastmaster, Eric Likkel, told me after the meeting. “It’s just telling you how you could have done better.”
Meetings are structured according to an agenda that most clubs follow: The toastmaster acts as a master of ceremonies. Two or three people give prepared speeches a few minutes long, and others give them constructive criticism sandwiched between generous layers of praise. Still others keep track of things like timing and how many filler words the speakers use.
In the potentially scariest part of the meeting, a volunteer chooses people at random to give a short speech off the cuff based on a particular topic. It’s OK to say no. I said yes. Delivering a speech with no preparation is indeed not easy, but everyone greeted mine with the same enthusiastic applause they gave everyone else.
When Eric Peterson gave his report as the official grammarian of this meeting, he spent most of his time pointing out words he liked: ephemeral, ruminate, affinity.
Later, he told me, “I came here thinking I’d be more of a public speaker, but it’s been more about connecting with other people. I’ve developed confidence and awareness, and now I know how to read a room.”
Practicing speaking in front of other people also helps with networking. Lara Simmons, who gave the day’s first prepared speech, said her speaking experience came in handy during a recent job interview. “Being able to speak extemporaneously gave me the confidence to pick up the ball when it was thrown at me,” she said.
But what happens here goes deeper than just polishing speaking skills. Giving a speech often involves giving your audience a little bit of yourself.
Karen Nakagawa said that’s what sets Toastmasters apart from many other casual groups. “I’ve been going to the same yoga class for years, and I probably wouldn’t recognize anyone on the street,” she said. But Toastmasters is different. “This is designed so that you will interact with people a little bit … you actually get to know about their inner worlds and their lives.”
All that comes in a friendly, nonjudgmental place. Nakagawa recalls bringing her college-student daughter to Toastmasters. “After her first time, she was like, ‘Mom, this is basically compliment club.’ You walk out of here feeling better about yourself.”