Clubs help to conquer fear of public speaking


April 14, 2004|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FACES TURNED red, palms turned sweaty, minds went blank.

These are some of the ways Toastmasters members recalled reacting when speaking in front of audiences.

That was before joining the Patuxent Toastmasters club, which meets twice a month in Wilde Lake village. Since joining, members say, they are comfortable giving talks. If they do feel a touch of the jitters, they always know they can mask their fears.

"Almost everyone is afraid of public speaking," Harper's Choice resident Emma Frost said at a meeting at the Bryant Woods neighborhood center. "The organization is designed to build skills and confidence."

The local group, which has about 20 members, was established in 1997. Its mission is to provide a supportive and an encouraging learning environment to help members improve leadership and public speaking skills. It is a chapter of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit founded in 1924 in the basement of a YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif. There are more than 9,300 clubs around the world with more than 190,000 members.

Former Patuxent Toastmaster President Diane Heath and her husband, Rene Maldonado, chartered a bilingual club last year called Hola. It helps Spanish speakers improve their English and English speakers to improve their Spanish.

Maldonado, originally from Bolivia, saw the need after improving his skills with Patuxent Toastmasters. "I was able to get a new job within my company with a 40 percent salary increase because of my ability to communicate," Maldonado said. "I wanted to help other Latinos improve their skills."

Hola meets in Harper's Choice and follows the same structure. Members can choose to give their speeches in Spanish or English.

Toastmasters share a common goal: the desire to improve public speaking skills. And, as with any skill, practice makes perfect -- or close to it.

"Every time I had to get up and speak, I would be paralyzed with fear," said Dayton resident Denise McCord, whose job at the Department of Energy required that she conduct training seminars. "I had to give a `dry run' training seminar in front of 15 co-workers, and I couldn't do it. I had to bow out."

McCord attributes her fears to a negative experience in college, where a professor mistreated her in front of the class. Now she has been accepted into graduate school, where she will be required to make presentations. At last month's meeting, McCord gave an entertaining seven-minute speech in front of about 15 members, and she didn't even break a sweat.

"This group is very supportive," McCord said. "I'm learning how to arrange speeches and how to think on my feet."

Toastmasters speak at every meeting, whether at length or in short bursts. Members work from a manual called the Communication and Leadership Program. To receive a certificate, members prepare 10 speeches of four to 10 minutes.

"Each speech is designed to teach a different skill," said Boris Velikovich, club president and a software analyst with the Department of Homeland Security. Born in Russia, he joined the group two years ago to improve his English while he was living in Dorsey's Search. He now lives in Reston, Va., and continues to serve as president because he enjoys the group.

"There is the ice-breaker speech, where people talk about themselves. This is designed to break the fear," he said. "Then there is a speech that teaches you to move your body. There is one where you are required to use a prop, and one where you are required to use different inflections. The last one you are required to inspire your audience. After giving 10 speeches, you understand what needs to be done."

The speeches are not the only way to speak at the meetings. There are "table topics," when members pull questions out of a hat and give a one- or two-minute talk off the cuff.

"It's not like American Idol," said Wilde Lake resident Joe Grow, club treasurer. "No one ever says, `I hated it, it didn't do anything for me.' There is a method to evaluating speeches. First, you say something positive, then you mention what might be improved on, then you end with something positive."

The skills can be used in everyday life, as well as in professional situations.

"I saw the most improvement when my grandmother passed away," Grow said. "They asked if someone could give the eulogy and I said, `Yes, I can.' After I did it, I felt really good. I wanted someone who knew her well to give the eulogy."

Information on Patuxent Toastmasters: Boris Velikovich, 443-538-7262, or www. Information on Hola: Diane Heath or Rene Maldonado, 410-381-8459.

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