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I've always had mixed feelings about public speaking. I was a good debater in high school and love expressing my ideas verbally. I also feel it is crucial to do so. There is no way that the written word can compare to the power of speaking directly to a person or an audience face-to-face. Yet, at the same time I've often been nervous about speaking in front of a crowd. For many years, I had a feeling that this was a fear I would need to face eventually, since so much of what I want to do in life will require the ability to verbally communicate on a wider scale.

At the very first meeting of the Under the Hill Group, one of the members mentioned that she had joined an organization called Toastmasters in order to face her fears of public speaking. I had heard a little about it before that, and I knew that Toastmasters was an organization where people went to practice getting up in front of an audience and speaking. But it wasn't until I met this person who had been personally involved that I really started considering trying it. Nonetheless, it was a couple of years before I decided to finally do it.

In late 2003, I started realizing even more acutely just how much fear was stopping me from growing in several areas. My fear of public speaking was a simple one to take on and finally, after Toastmasters came up yet again in a conversation, I decided I should check it out. I went to their website and found that there was a meeting being held just a few minutes' drive away from me just an hour later that very evening. In the past I would have thought about it for another few weeks or months, but I decided then and there to attend the meeting that night.

I did and continued to for a while. As of the initial writing of this page, I had just given my second Toastmasters speech and went on to do more speeches after that. The idea, for me, was to just speak over and over so often that it became second nature. While I may always have a few butterflies before going up, I learned that each time, even though I was a bit nervous, once I got into the speech a bit I was quite comfortable.

There are Toastmasters groups all over the world of various sizes and there have been a number of famous Toastmasters. I only know how my group ran, but from my time there I can say it was a very enjoyable experience. My confidence in speaking improved very quickly. I also met many very interesting and passionate people there.

What is a Toastmasters Meeting Like?

Each week people are assigned roles for the next week's meeting. Each meeting is run by a member who agrees to be the Toastmaster (the master of ceremonies) for that evening. The meeting starts with a greeting from the Toastmaster and then a person goes up and shares an inspirational or interesting thought with us. Then another person puts up a word of the day, a new word which we then attempt to incorporate into our speaking throughout the meeting. A third person comes up and gives us a joke. All of these smaller roles allow people to get comfortable going in front of the group for just a short time and are often done by newer members. After a number of meetings, we have heard many thoughts, words, and jokes that we can then use as we go forward as speakers.

The next section of the meeting is called Table Topics. A member goes up and asks questions of other members. The questions can involve any topic from talking about your favorite book to discussing how you handled a difficult situation. For each question, the Table Topic leader calls on a member of the group who then stands and speaks for between one and two minutes on the topic extemporaneously. The goal of this section is to learn to think and speak on your feet. Newcomers often have trouble filling the time and their mind may go blank, but after a few meetings they start to learn tricks that make it easier to answer questions on their feet in an organized fashion.

After a five minute break, it is time for the speeches. There are usually two or three assigned speakers for each meeting. The speakers follow manuals which are provided by Toastmasters. Beginners start with the basic manual and more advanced speakers can progress to manuals that incorporate a higher level of skills. Each speech in a manual has certain objectives such as to learn to use gestures while speaking, to convince an audience of your sincerity, or to learn the role of changing your voice volume during your speech.

Following the manuals is a great experience because you really learn to be aware of all the different aspects that go into being a good speaker. I think that often people see public speaking as almost magical, something some people can do and others can't. I definitely agree that some speakers are more naturally charismatic, but a lot of what makes a good speaker - eye contact, awareness of time during speaking, use of gestures, organization of thoughts - are skills that can be specifically improved with practice.

After each speaker goes, they are then evaluated by other members of the group. This is also a very useful section in that it not only provides feedback to the speaker, but it helps the rest of the group learn what to look for in their speeches and in the speeches of others that can make communication more effective. Evaluation is a skill of its own and a good evaluator can really help the group learn how to analyze a speech and break it down to see what worked and what can be improved.

Finally, we get reports from the monitors of the meeting. One person during the meeting is the timer and keeps track of the length of each table topic answer, speech and evaluation, making sure that everyone stayed within the time limits for that given section. Table topic answers are to be between one and two minutes. Speeches are usually five to seven minutes, but some speeches are meant to be longer. Evaluations are to be between two and three minutes. There are grace periods allowed of about 30 seconds before or after the time limit. Those who do not stay within the time limits are not eligible for the awards of the meeting.

There is another monitor whose job is to mark down whenever a member makes a grammatical error or says "ahh", "umm", or some other such hesitation phrase. The goal is to help other members become more aware of these problems so that they can cut down on it in the future. All such monitoring is done in the most friendly spirit in order to help members grow. In most cases, when people first attend, they aren't even aware of how often they are saying "ahh" or "umm", but after a few meetings they become more aware and do it less and less often, which can noticeably increase how polished a speaker sounds.

Now that all sections of the meeting are finished, awards are given for the best Table Topic response, the best speaker and the best evaluator. All members vote on these awards after each of these sections of the meeting, and one members tallies the results. Ribbons are given to the winners.

Overall, Toastmasters is a great organization for anyone who wants to work on improving their public speaking. I'm sure every group is a little different, and you may want to try a couple of different ones in your area before choosing your regular group. I lucked out in that I really liked the first group I went to. If you do choose to join, make sure and find a friendly, helpful group so that you can feel comfortable as you gain confidence in your abilities.

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