Toastmasters Lori Whaley, Carl Carlson, Frank Shirley and Mike Baum listen intently as speaker/librarian Rosina Vertz delivers a speech about the reasons to have a library card. Photo by Hugh McMillan

The fear of public speaking has been said to be our greatest fear. Today’s best speakers likely went through that same experience when facing their first audience. Many of them built the confidence to overcome their fear of speaking through a Toastmasters club.

A small group of Key Peninsula citizens decided to form a Toastmasters Club to help members overcome those fears, learn speaking skills and practice them in prepared or impromptu speeches.

KP’s club founder, Frank Shirley noted that membership in Toastmasters was expected of him as a young man in business.

“When I first moved out to Tacoma, my boss took me to a Toastmasters meeting, back in the days of men-only in the organization,” Shirley said. “It was expected of me as part of the job to attend Toastmasters. I have been a member ever since with the exception of a few years in the 1980’s…it has helped me to be a leader in my profession and given me confidence to talk in public that I probably would not have learned had it not been for Toastmasters.”

In an effort to stay closer to home on dark rainy nights, Shirley started a Toastmasters Club on the Key Peninsula. He was driving to Gig Harbor to attend meetings.

“We first started meeting in January of 2008 on Wednesdays at noon in the Key Center Library. We have about four to six people attending the meetings.”

Rosina Vertz said she knew for a long time that she needed some help with public speaking, but kept putting it off.

“I have known about the Toastmasters Clubs for more than two decades and have known for as long that I needed exactly this kind of experience,” Vertz said. “I have the same affliction as many others: having to speak in front of a group larger than three ‘induces terror, causes babbling incoherence or ulcers -and for the same reasons I found numerous excuses not to join.”

But when Frank Shirley came to the library to set up a meeting room for the local club, Vertz said she couldn’t say no to herself anymore.

“I was caught. It was right at my place of work, and on Wednesdays, I worked the late shift. No more excuses (or maybe I was just finally matured enough to face the demons) and I was in. As everyone will tell you, it is a tremendous opportunity for personal growth,” she said.

Toastmaster Club meetings are very structured and organized, and that is one thing that keeps Vertz coming back.

“There is opening by the president of the club, then the toastmaster is in charge of the educational part of meeting, introducing the speakers, transition from one part to the other, announcing the different “jobs” like the grammarian, the time keeper, the evaluator, and the table topic master,” she said.

Each speaker is evaluated in a positive way, with a particular focus on the speech’s good points, and an offer of honest suggestions for improvement.

As with anything in life, practice will render results, Shirley said.

Toastmasters International began in 1924 at the YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif. Toastmasters has since grown to become a major help for people to increase their competence and comfort before an audience. The organization has nearly 235,000 members, with 11,700 clubs in 92 countries. They can offer a proven, enjoyable way to practice and hone speaking, communication, and leadership skills.

At least 20 members are required to gain an official chartered Toastmaster’s Club, though the KP Chapter has not yet achieved that number.

“If we could find 10 more people to participate, I believe we could find enough extra people to be an official Toastmasters Club,” Shirley said.

Not only would more members give the club an official charter, the more members a club has, the better it works, he said.

Though the risk of failure is often the scariest thing for people, Shirley said a Toastmasters club is the safest place to take that risk.

“A Toastmasters club is a place where you can try something and fall flat on your face,” he said. “The club members will pick you up, dust you off, and give you ideas on how you can improve your presentation….Toastmasters does not get rid of the butterflies, but gets them flying in formation,” he said.

It is important to have as many members as possible to give everyone a chance to practice speaking in front of a larger crowd, but Vertz said the meetings have been small so far.

“I am disappointed that quite a few people came for a short time, then for whatever reason, stayed away,” she said. “We changed our meeting time from Wednesday noon, to Thursday 7:00 am, because people in business couldn’t take time off in the middle of the day, yet we didn’t add any members once we met early in the morning. I think the interest is there, but it requires a commitment.”

Learning to speak in front of a group of people is only one part of the club. By listening to the speeches of others, Vertz said she has learned so many things.

“I have learned about commercial fishing in Alaska, how to walk in a forest, what it was like to become a grandfather the first time, and how the ethics of the Samurai warrior has relevance in lives,” she said.

Preparing a speech for the club takes focus, Vertz said, and forces the person to slow down and take the time to think about a single subject.

“There are so many things going on in our busy lives. We have responsibilities at work and at home. We go from task to task, often on autopilot,” she said. “When I have to prepare a speech, I take a topic and I spend a great deal of time thinking about, gathering notes, bringing arguments and wrestling with counter-arguments, shaping and polishing it. Most speeches are to be no shorter than 5, and no longer than 7 minutes. And believe you me; it’s a lot harder to do a short speech than you think.

“I enjoy the intellectual discipline it requires, and it is quite a source of pride to know that I delivered a good speech and to know that in a small way I entertained or informed my fellow toastmasters. Criticism is gently given; you always walk away with a sense of success. Thus starts a perfect day.”

For more information about Toastmasters, visit the website, www.toastmasters.org.

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