Not so long ago public speaking meant giving a speech in front of a large group of people. Pretty straightforward. But nowadays the average person might be called upon to do all kinds of public speaking during the course of his or her career, from addressing meetings to holding online training sessions via webcam, to doing media interviews to talking on podcasts, or even making a toast at a wedding.
A venerable institution dedicated to public speaking is still there, ready to help people train for the public speaking demands of the modern era. Toastmasters, a club for helping people hone their speaking skills, has several local chapters with regular meetings. For those working in the Route 1 corridor, the Mid-Day Toastmasters, a group that meets in Robbinsville at lunchtime, is a convenient option.
The Mid-Day Toastmasters meet every other Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. at the Robbinsville Library. The next meeting takes place June 26. For more information, visit 4139.toastmastersclubs.org.
Jim Samuel, a longtime Toastmasters member and a former district governor, says the club helps its members feel comfortable with both prepared and improvised speeches.
A typical Toastmasters meeting is broken up into three parts. In the first part one or more person will give a five to seven-minute speech on a prepared topic. “Speakers are expected to know the basics of projection and eye contact and avoiding para-language,” Samuel says. (Para-language are the ums and ahs and ‘you knows’ that we all use to buy time for our brains to catch up to our mouths. Toastmasters teaches pausing instead.)
In the second part a “table topic master” will pepper group members with questions that they must answer without having done any preparation. They might be asked about anything at all: talk about a memorable fall activity, or a time when you were mentored, or had a protege, or if you were in the circus, would you rather be a lion or a tamer?
If these questions seem off the wall, that’s the point: they train you to think on your feet just like you would have to if you were called on unexpectedly during a business meeting.
“It doesn’t really matter what your content is,” Samuel says. “It’s an exercise in speaking without preparation.” You will be better prepared next time your boss surprises you with “how long is this project going to take?”
In the last part speakers are evaluated and given feedback. A judge will tell them if they hit their objective and offer two or three ideas for improvement: it doesn’t matter how good a speech is, it can always be better.
Samuel says some people attend meetings for six months before giving a speech of their own and then kill it when they finally take the podium. “You’re able to learn a lot just from observing,” he says. There is also a special grammarian whose job it is to rate speakers on their use of the English language.
The club is mostly about self-improvement. But for those who desire to compare their skills against others, the Toastmasters do run competitions. Samuel has won 23 area contests himself.
Samuel grew up in Brooklyn, where his father was an ophthalmologist and his mother was a housewife and painter who displayed her work in juried exhibitions. He has had to use his public speaking skills frequently in his own career.
Before 2000 Samuel, a Syracuse University graduate, was a computer consultant managing databases. (He refers to his role as an “insultant” since he would travel around pointing out flaws in various IT setups.) After the Y2K bug came and went he switched over to insurance sales. Today he lives in Jamesburg and owns his own agency, Worth Unlimited.
He has been a Toastmaster for 25 years. The group itself was founded in 1924 by a YMCA director who wanted to create a public speaking program for young men. After the failure of several “public speaking” clubs, he started a new one named after the most fun type of public speech he could think of — the wedding toast — and it finally took off. Today there are more than 15,000 clubs worldwide with 350,000 current members.
And though the meetings are mostly about other forms of public speaking, there are still special events focused on toasts as well as a few for roasts.
Being a Toastmaster has given Samuel insight into the speeches of public figures.
Samuel rates former governor Chris Christie highly in the public speaking department. “He was larger than life in the way he spoke,” he says. “He used grand gestures and a lot of vocal variation … I thought he would have done very well as a Toastmaster.” Christie’s time as a prosecutor may have helped him hone his public speaking skills.
On the national stage, Barack Obama also gets high marks from Samuel. “He was a really captivating speaker,” he says. “He used turns of phrase that you don’t hear every day. I think that helped make him popular.”
And what about the current president? Samuel couldn’t help but use some para-language before answering that one. “He’s managed to make everybody angry,” he observed. “He doesn’t smile much when he makes presentations. He’s kind of in his own category in many ways as a public speaker. I wouldn’t really invite him to my club as a model speaker.”
If you do want to be a model speaker, Samuel says the most important thing is not to worry too much and to realize that the audience is with you. They want you to succeed. “It’s natural to have butterflies, but with some practice and technique, you can get the butterflies to fly in formation,” he says.
For more information on Toastmasters, including public speaking tips, visit www.toastmasters.org.