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.
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.
"I had speech in high school and two semesters in college," says Ms. Oranch, who adds that she has learned more about speaking to the public from Toastmasters. "The courses were quite good, but Toastmasters offers you the chance to practice and get feedback, and do it because of self- determination."
Ms. Oranch, who works in the admissions office of Simmons College in Boston, says she has used what she has learned.
"The first place I used it was in a job interview," she says. "I have also helped to raise money for day care."
Alan LaGreen, manager of membership and club extension at Toastmasters International's headquarters in Santa Ana, Calif., points out that most Toastmasters join the group because it offers them practical help. They are not interested in a social club.
"A good example of an average member is a man or woman who has been trained in a technical skill, and now has been tapped for a supervisory or management job," he says. "He or she hasn't had the need or opportunity to develop communication or leadership skills. We look for ways to fill that gap."
Membership in Toastmasters clubs is growing after a slump during the early ' 70s. There are 75,000 members in 3,800 clubs in 47 countries, up from 50,000 members in 1975, according to Mr. LaGreen. Businesses that sponsor in-house Toastmasters clubs as a part of management training are one of the biggest areas of growth for the organization. And one of the highest concentrations of Toastmasters clubs is in government agencies in Washington, D.C.
Today's Toastmasters International expects a regular turnover of members. Some drop out of the program when they have finished the first workbook.
"They have accomplished their goal," explains Mr. LaGreen. Others stay in to take more advanced programs such as entertaining, public relations, and speeches by management. Some remain in the club because of the fellowship or the forum it offers to practice real speeches.
Women members, who are addressed as "Madame Toastmaster," account for 20 to 25 percent of the membership, according to Mr. LaGreen. Toastmasters decided in 1973 to allow women to join.
"With the growth in corporate clubs and government agencies, it made sense to admit women," he says.
Sheila Oranch doesn't mind being called "Madame Toastmaster."
"It's just a name, a word," she says. "It's too bad it has male connotations." But she feels a lot of good has been accomplished since the formerly all male group began to admit women.
"I think the rise in consciousness in both men and women is inspiring," she says. "The men had to change their jokes and vocabulary. And it has to affect their dealings with women outside of the club, too."