“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld
The notion that people fear public speaking more than death is suspect, but for many, a gut wrenching dread of speaking to a group of people is certainly real.
Some lucky people enjoy speaking in front of groups, while others…well, they surely wouldn’t prefer to be dead, but it’s a safe bet that they’d rather be doing just about anything else.
These two types are very different, but many in both groups have some things in common: They have a strong drive to build their communication, leadership and interpersonal skills, to experience personal growth, and to master (or at least conquer their fear of) public speaking, and they want to do it in a supportive environment.
Fortunately for thousands of people around the world, including here in the Northwoods, there’s an organization that helps them achieve their goals. Toastmasters International has been helping people improve their public speaking skills since 1924, when the first Toastmasters meeting was held in the basement of the YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif. Ralph C. Smedley, a director of education for the YMCA, created the organization after realizing there was a need for training people to speak more effectively. Today, Toastmasters International has a global presence, including a chapter in Eagle River, the Northwinds Toastmasters club.
At a recent meeting of the Northwinds Toastmasters, it quickly became obvious why this club has been in existence there for two decades, why it has several long-term members and why some members travel impressive distances-one woman even drives from Upper Michigan-to participate. Those in the Northwinds Toastmasters club appear to feel pretty comfortable with each other-a big help when a person tends to be nervous about speaking to groups of people.
Along with mastering the art of public speaking, building relationships is a big reason that Toastmasters membership is attractive to many people. The camaraderie, says longtime member Mary Jo Berner, is one of the best things about membership in Toastmasters. “You become like a community,” she says. “I think that supportive environment is one of the biggest things we’ve all come to appreciate.
“I joined in 2004 because somebody asked me to,” she continues, “and I thought, I can always learn to improve how I communicate. I’ve stuck with it now for eight years.” Although she was already a savvy business woman when she joined, Mary Jo, who owned a radio station in Eagle River until 2005, has still gotten a lot from her membership in Toastmasters. “It’s given me a lot of self-confidence to lead group discussions and make presentations.”
Tom Rulseh has been with Toastmasters for many years, and another perk of membership, he says, is learning. “I like the opportunity to hear from other people about some of their life experiences. It’s an opportunity to learn about people and things they find interesting.”
A member is scheduled to give a speech periodically, but every meeting presents an opportunity for people to improve their communication skills. Those who aren’t scheduled to give a speech at a given meeting aren’t idle. They have important roles to play during the meeting, and those roles are rotated from one meeting to the next. For example, one member will serve as the grammarian (the grammarian is responsible for keeping track of the number of times a speaker uses filler words, for example, like “ah” or “um”). Another member will serve as the timekeeper and after the speeches are given, will be called upon to report on speakers’ adherence to time limits. Other members present verbal evaluations of speeches, and at each meeting, one person is designated as the “Toastmaster”-the person who introduces the speakers and keeps everything rolling along.
“It’s a great place to improve communication skills,” Tom says. “I believe that we would all be better off if we all worked on improving our communication skills.” Members learn to really listen to each other, he adds, and they learn to present their ideas in a clear manner.
At the June meeting, members recalled why they joined Toastmasters. “Several years ago, I worked for the city,” said member Jean Comstock. “A gentleman there belonged to Toastmasters.” She admired the manner in which he thought before speaking. “It impressed me. It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of a room and speak.” Jean realized it was time to get out of her comfort zone, so she sat in on a Toastmasters meeting and was impressed with the club. “It felt like a very safe place to step out of that box,” she told the group.
The president of the Eagle River chapter, David Hoffman, probably said it best when he told members, “Toastmasters provides a safe place to ‘fail.'”
For anyone who dreads public speaking, joining an organization that encourages one to confront that fear is a big step. But those who are curious about Toastmasters are welcome to sit in on a meeting to see what the organization is about. And taking that step can lead to some big changes in a person’s life.
“It can benefit people,” Mary Jo says, “it can further their careers. The ability to communicate directly and effectively is the most important aspect of Toastmasters.”
The Northwinds Toastmasters meet the second Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at Olson Memorial Library in Eagle River. For more information, call Tom Rulseh at (715) 546-8032. For general information about Toastmasters International, log on to toastmasters.org.