Seven years ago, financial planner Robin Morrell was promoted to a leadership position that required a lot of public speaking. During a training session for the new role, she ran into trouble.
“Although I knew what I was doing and what I wanted to say, it didn’t come out quite right,” she said.
In other public speaking situations, Morrell added, she was “jokey” and uncomfortable.
Concerned about the challenges of her new position, Morrell decided to drop by a meeting of the Top of the Town Toastmasters in Manchester. Since then, Morrell has become so comfortable speaking in front of, and leading, a large group of people that she now teaches Zumba classes on the side.
Toastmasters International is a nonprofit organization with nearly 3,000 members around the world, including 24 clubs in New Hampshire. These meetings are all about developing public speaking skills using a series of activities to practice speaking off the cuff, prepare and deliver speeches and keep an eye on their “ah”s and “um”s. Participants range from college students to retirees, engineers to teachers to business executives, marketers to lawyers, New Hampshire natives to English-language-learners, all interested in getting better at speaking up and speaking well.
There are no instructors at Toastmaster meetings. Instead, participants take on roles like the Toastmaster, who introduces each speaker and provides segues, and the “Ah” Counter, who tallies everyone’s “ahs,” “ums” and other stutters.
“By taking on these various roles, a lot of times you get practice in leading a group and leading a particular activity or function that you might not be able to get in your workplace,” said Kyle Keldsen, a reputation manager and Internet marketer who joined the Merrimasters Toastmasters in Nashua a year and a half ago.
Participants also set their own pace working through “speech projects” in a series of manuals, and everyone provides written feedback after speeches.
“The feedback is meant to be positive,” Keldsen explained. “‘Here’s what you did well, and here are some areas for improvement.’”
While working on public speaking is the main focus for many participants, elements like giving constructive peer feedback are also extremely valuable, said Manasi Kakade from Toastmasters of Manchester. Feedback in Toastmasters starts off with a compliment, then points out an area that needs some work, before closing with a piece of hopeful encouragement.
“I give the same form of feedback to my coworkers and employees,” said Kakade, an engineer turned marketer.
They, in turn, have also adopted this strategy, which Kakade said has made them a better, more cohesive and less confrontational team.
But a workplace is not always the most comfortable environment to try out a vocal role, Kakade pointed out. Instead, Toastmasters clubs, which are big enough to feel like an audience, but also small enough to feel personal and connected, can provide a safe place to develop these skills.
“Toastmasters is the most comfortable environment that you can be in,” Kakade said. From longtime members to newcomers, “Everyone has felt that fear or apprehensiveness, and everybody is made to feel comfortable.”
Kakade, Keldsen and Morrell agreed that visitors to any Toastmasters club are welcomed warmly and respectfully, given the option to participate in elements of the meeting and the freedom to simply sit quietly and watch. Because every member was once a nervous, first-time visitor, Morrell said, it’s usually easy to tell how much or how little a newcomer wants to participate, from simply introducing himself (even that is optional) to taking on a simple role like timekeeping, or even jumping into a short, impromptu speech on a given topic.
Visitors can come back as many times as they want, commitment-free, before becoming a member, Morrell added. Every club has a slightly different personality, so “shopping around” for the right fit is encouraged.
The point, Kakade said, is making newcomers as comfortable as possible. “Taking that first step is the most important thing, because afterwards it gets easier,” she said. “Once they get out of the car and go in and sit through the two-hour meeting, that’s the hardest step. Everything else is much easier, and very rewarding, too.”