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Speak Easy

speaker
Robert Scheer

Sign Language: Coast Toastmasters' President Kathryn Nance speaks in clear, precise tongues at one of the Toasties' twice-monthly gatherings, both of which serve to get people over their fear of public speaking.

In Santa Cruz and worldwide, Toastmasters take on the terror of public speaking

By Michael Mechanic

The woman in the print dress and denim jacket is speaking. She's talking about her family and about what she does for a living and what she's doing here. She's just four seats to your right. (Don't think about it!) The fat man in the brown blazer looks nervous. He's next. His brow is sweating and he's shifting his weight from foot to foot. Then comes the guy with the funny glasses and that old woman in the beret. Then you.

You can feel your mouth getting dry. (Don't think about it!) You try listening to the fat man, who has begun to speak and is now stammering something about his hobbies. You can barely hear him over the thumping of your heart in your chest. The fat man's hands are shaking badly. You begin to feel nauseous. You'll be up soon.

Aphorizing and Jousting

Practically any time a study comes out citing people's biggest fears, public speaking is near the top of the list. Whether giving a formal speech or merely formally introducing oneself to a small group of colleagues, standing up in front of others is a terrifying prospect to the average person. "It's second only to the fear of death," says Pat Warfield, a member of Coast Toastmasters, which gives people a chance to practice their diction, public and private.

She might be exaggerating, but probably not. So universal is the fear of commandeering the dais that Toastmasters clubs have flourished widely both here and abroad. Established in 1924 by a group of men who began meeting in the basement of a Santa Ana YMCA to hone their speaking skills, the now international Toastmasters organization began accepting women in 1973 and now boasts more than 180,000 members. There are Toastmaster manuals, a magazine called The Toastmaster, brochures, speaking competitions--it's a major ball game.

The Coast Toastmasters, as it happens, are mostly women. At a recent night at Tony and Alba's pizza house in Capitola, the Coast Toasties (as they jokingly dub themselves) are conducting one of their twice-monthly engagements. The local club consists of about a dozen dues-paying folks ranging in age from about 30 to 50. It's a jovial, supportive bunch (everybody applauds everyone else, almost to the point of silliness), and guests to these meetings are in serious danger of being recruited by their magnanimity.

The Coasties are one of six such groups in the Santa Cruz area. The areas are bundled into districts, which make up divisions, all of which compose the looming International. Members compete in speaking contests locally and, as with spelling bees, winners move to the next level until you have the cream of the crop pontificating, aphorizing, jousting and parrying with pithy witticisms at worldwide competitions.

Confidence to Be Silly

Different clubs have different modes of operation, but they all share common Toastmasterisms that come off as pretty amusing to an outsider. Coasties President Kathryn Nance, a tall, upbeat, slightly birdlike woman with a professional flair, says a few words of introduction and introduces the evening's Toastmaster (emcee), Ed Fieberg, who determines the meeting's theme ("spring," in this case) and conducts the business of the meeting--introducing the speakers and the people who evaluate them, thanking, joking, applauding and schmoozing the audience.

This particular Toastmasters club has an environmental focus. Ed, a member of the Coast Toasties for a year and a half, says he joined partly so that, as a volunteer member of EarthSave, he would be able to speak publicly on environmental issues. Ed describes his previous sentiments about public speaking as "general terror, and not wanting to be the one to represent the group."

Toastmasters has helped him a lot, Ed says. "It's great practice. I still get nervous, but less and less every time. And the meetings are fun, too. It's like having a group of people that goes out bowling together."

Helen, who has been a Toastmaster for about a year, started out by taking a speech-giving class the club was offering and then decided to stick it out. "It was kind of a whim. I sit in front of a computer a lot, and it was a way to go out and talk with real live people. Once I did it, I found it was a whole new outlet for creativity," she says. "My friends told me I'm a closet extrovert, and all of a sudden I have a forum to get up and be silly."

Helen says she also treasures the group for its camaraderie. "People in the group are very supportive and articulate and intelligent and I found that was a real need for me," she says. "It's really raised my confidence level. It just took it to another level."

Ums, Ers, Ahs, Likes and Yaknows

There are to be two prepared speeches tonight, an Ice Breaker (a new member's first speech) by Donna Meyers, and an impromptu Tall Tale, an exercise in storytelling by more experienced member Helen Cole, who previously took this particular story to an area Toastmasters competition.

But first things first. Gotta pick the players. Enid Lyon will be the "Ah Counter," watching out for the speaker's ums, ers, ahs, likes and yaknows. After I reject the honor, Therese Hunter is chosen as the "Grammarian," whom, er ... who guards the linguistic integrity of the spoken word.

Therese also is the "Wordmaster," and she arrives armed with a special word for speakers to eke into their proclamations whenever possible. "Today's word is 'Elucidate,' she says, before posting the word on a stack of pizza boxes nestled against the wall. "I thought we could have some fun with it." (The speakers had fun with "Elucidate" exactly twice, the Wordmaster later reported.)

Then there are evaluators for each speaker, affording the listeners a chance to hone the art of the tactful critique. Naturally, the evaluators also are evaluated by--who else?--the "General Evaluator," who evaluates everything and is the only person who doesn't herself get evaluated.

Ed, a 32-year-old computer programmer clad in jeans and sneakers, looks a little nervous at first--his hands shake a bit as he clutches some cue cards--but he plays a decent Toastmaster and throws in a little springtime poetry to go with the theme (that, actually, is about the only thing that went with the theme).

Neophyte orator Donna looks surprisingly confident during her five minutes on how her training as a swimmer led her through all sorts of aquatic career choices, culminating in a position as a regional planner working for the Coastal Watershed Council.

Helen's speech is something else, despite a few memory lapses. This petite graphic artist uses her animated face and wild gesticulations to tell a story of how her character, an upbeat, organized housewife, accidentally bumped head-to-head into a young angst-ridden musician and somehow, their personalities got switched. He sought her out, demanding his blues back, and so they made a deal. He'd straighten up her house and she'd write the songs. It is a fantastic story.

Holly Williams, probably the youngest in the group, heads up "Table Topics," an impromptu speaking exercise in which people get up and talk about some subject--in this case, funny family expressions and folklore. In Holly's family, it was, "Be careful or you'll go to Grampa Cogett's House," meaning, "Watch out or you'll get yourself killed."

My own family had a liquid called "Edison's Medicine," the cloudy product of filling up a used milk glass with water.

Of course, the mere thought of actually saying this out loud stultified me.

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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