President Franklin Roosevelt famously noted, ”The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, however, 75 percent of people rank public speaking as their number one fear. Apparently standing up in front of a group to deliver a speech leaves the vast majority of people terrified—sweaty palms and all.
Since its founding in 1924, Toastmasters has been helping people overcome this fear. The organization also builds leadership skills and aids its members with improving communication skills. It’s all about gaining self-confidence and self-awareness which allows members to maximize their potential.
The History of Toastmasters International
Illinois YMCA Education Director Ralph C. Smedley recognized the need for public-speaking training in 1905. He organized the Toastmasters Club, referencing the role of “toastmasters” at banquets. Several years later, in October 1924, Toastmasters International began. In 1973, the organization was opened to women, paving the way for female leaders around the world.
A worldwide nonprofit educational organization, Toastmasters International is entering its 100th year. Headquartered in Englewood, CO, the organization’s membership exceeds 280,000 people in more than 14,700 clubs in 144 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people from diverse backgrounds become more confident speakers, communicators and leaders.
Kathleen Kuznicki is a past Division B director for District 13 of Toastmasters International and is a member of the Cranberry Area Toastmasters Club and the Cranberry High Noon Toastmasters Club. A patent attorney with the Lynch Law Group in Cranberry, Kuznicki was previously a biological scientist.
“I chose to join Toastmasters because as a lawyer, I had to learn to communicate better one-on-one with people,” she explained.
Typical Toastmaster clubs are made up of 20 to 30 people who meet either weekly or bimonthly for approximately an hour. Toastmaster’s flexible education program, Pathways, provides 11 paths to choose from with more in development. Members choose which skills they want to focus on based on their personal interests and goals.
Meetings provide each member with opportunities to practice several leadership skills:
Members learn how to plan and conduct meetings.
Each member presents one-to-two-minute impromptu speeches on assigned topics.
Members present speeches based on projects in the Toastmasters’ education program covering topics such as speaking, organization, vocal variety, language, gestures and persuasion.
Every member giving a prepared speech is assigned an evaluator who identifies speech strengths and offers suggestions for improvement.
The confidence gained from the experience is obvious. “I’ve seen people hold on to the podium looking a little green for their first speech,” said Kuznicki. “By the time they give their sixth speech, they are stepping away from the podium.”
Although there is certainly a focus on public speaking skills, that is only one aspect of the program. The educational tools used arm members with the skills and confidence needed to effectively express themselves in any situation. Being decisive, becoming a better negotiator and sharpening management skills are all part of the curriculum.
“Toastmasters is also good for networking,” said Kuznicki. “You meet people that are there to improve themselves.”
Group personalities differ, so those interested in exploring membership in Toastmasters may wish to visit more than one club. The “Find a Club” tool on the Toastmaster website helps in locating local groups. The cost of membership averages $50 every six months.
“I joined Toastmasters in 2011 and I’ve learned a lot from it,” said Kuznicki. “ I’ve become a better speaker and have developed skills that help me communicate with clients so that they will understand what I’m doing and how I’m helping them.”
For information about local Toastmasters clubs, visit www.toastmasters.org.