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Toastmasters tackle wet palms, dry speeches

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 1980

Cambridge, Mass.

The group of men and women gathers every other Tuesday at the Cambridge YWCA to talk. But theirs is not just idle chatter. They are here to practice talking in front of meetings, introducing speakers, and holding an audience captive.They want to know if they are standing too rigidly, repeating simple points, or not putting enough emphasis in their voice.

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They are members of Toastmasters International, a practical program designed to help men and women gain confidence and communication skills by offering a forum to speak in public and receive evaluation from peers.

Public speaking is not always easy. Nearly everyone who has conducted a meeting or introduced a speaker has had a moment of panic when he felt he wasn't up to the task.

But many people realize that managing a meeting or making a laudable presentation before a group is important to career advancement. And that's where Toastmasters International feels it comes in.

The John Alden Toastmasters Club in Cambridge is typical of many.One member is a business consultant, formerly of Quebec, who must feel at ease talking with his clients. Another member, who works in accounting, has a stutter and sees Toastmasters as a place to practice speaking.

Members and guests meet in the library of the YWCA. A brief business meeting is held, run strictly by the parlimentary procedure rules that members learn as a part of efficient management.

Then members and those guests who volunteer have a chance to try their gift of gab during a "tabletalk" period. Each person is given a topic to speak on or a role to play for two minutes.One woman is asked to give the "acceptance" speech of a dark horse candidate who had just won the presidential election. She stands up at the table and smiles at the group.

"Madame Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters, and honored guests," she says, addressing all possible groups in an opening that is designed to use up 10 seconds. The woman, a first-time guest, talks with hesitancy for about half a minute about the joys of being elected and then decides she'd rather be sitting down.

"I will reveal my platform when I get down to Washington," she says a bit nervously and then returns to her seat.

Next on the agenda at the Cambridge club are three speeches by club members. Sheila Oranch, executive vice- president of the club, has been assigned to give a speech supporting an unpopular proposal. She tackles the draft. Throughout the speech she talks at an even pace, maintains eye contact with the group, and raises her voice when she makes an important point. Afterward, an evaluator gives praise and criticism. He critiques the delivery and content of her speech , while others time it and count the number of "ums" and "ahs" she used.

The basic communication and leadership series for Toastmasters is set out in a workbook with 15 projects, each a bit more difficult than the last. Toastmasters practice public speaking with such exercises as icebreakers, how to use gestures while speaking, using audio-visual aids, or giving a persuasive speech. The exact topic of the talks are up to each speaker, but he or she must concentrate on the specific skills of that lesson. Afterward, a complete evaluation is given.