Raise your glasses to the toastmasters

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Richard Huntley kicks things off for the toastmasters as Richard Arcand looks on.
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Patrick Pieck delivered a speech about children’s books.
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Alicia Carlson, the Toastmaster at the Feb. 16 Karner Blue Toastmasters meeting, speaks to a crowd that includes Peter Johnson (left) and Ann Baker. Baker was responsible for timing speeches at the meeting.

Fear of public speaking is enough of an epidemic that it has its own doctory word and everything: glossophobia. To some, the thought of getting up in front of strangers and muttering even a few phrases can lead to crippling anxiety.

We have it easy at the Insider. Our work is read by editors before it is received by millions of faithful readers - not that we ever make mistakes, mind you. But if we did, they'd never see the light of day.

Addressing a room of random people off the cuff? That's a totally different ballgame. And we'd be lying if we said we knew all there is to know about delivering a stirring speech.

But Karner Blue Toastmasters do. So we stopped by Feb. 16 for a crash course in competent communication.

Karner Blue is part of Toastmasters International, a worldwide organization focused on developing leadership and communication abilities. Karner Blue's mission statement is to "provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment in which every individual member has the opportunity to develop oral communication and leadership skills."

The meetings - which occur weekly and include a theme - are certainly structured in that way. Members have the opportunity to speak, discuss and evaluate, assuming the different roles at different times. Evaluations are always positive and are designed to encourage the speaker.

"When you're done with a speech, you can sit down and have an evaluation in 20 minutes. Sometimes the evaluation is so motivating you want to jump up and redo the whole speech," Richard Huntley, president of the Karner Blue group, said. "You'll find that's the mindset of many here."

Karner Blue meetings include several featured speeches between five and seven minutes and a series of "Table Topics," impromptu speeches delivered in response to a question from a Table Topics Master.

Timing is of the utmost importance to the toastmasters. Recognition is given out at the end of the evening, but only those speeches that remain within the specified time limit are eligible.

Roles are assigned at each meeting, with a Toastmaster elected to run the evening's ceremonies (he or she is also evaluated). Other responsibilities include the invocator, who provides a brief introductory speech centered on the meeting theme; the joke master, who lightens the mood with a short humorous tale; the timer, who is responsible for tracking speeches and giving warnings to speakers via colored cards as they approach the time limit; and the table topics master, who delivers a brief address while stopping intermittently to spark table topics speeches.

There is also a quizmaster, who at the end of the meeting asks trivia questions about the speeches to see who retained the information, and a grammarian, who makes note of any "ums" and "ahs" as well as any verbal missteps.

Another critical role is that of evaluator, the person who offers a summary of a speech with a focus on making sure the speaker accomplished his or her goals, stayed within the time limit and engaged the audience.

Everything, though, is done with a focus on positive encouragement.

"You get to grow at your own pace in a safe environment," Huntley said. "We teach people to evaluate positively. It's speaking, leading and evaluating motivationally."

Members of the group enjoy the warm atmosphere, as it fosters growth and confidence during a sometimes uncomfortable activity.

Peter Johnson, for instance, is preparing to go on a speaking tour of churches throughout the country, and though he often delivers messages to groups of six or eight at his job, the prospect of facing several hundred initially seemed daunting.

"It's the encouragement," Johnson said. "Everyone writes you little notes, and they teach you how to be a better speaker. It's the whole process you learn, to keep standing up and speaking on different things so you get better at it and better at it."

Patrick Pieck is a new member of the group, although he, too, is a primary speaker at his job. But he joined Karner Blue at the suggestion of his boss, and has already found the experience worthwhile.

He delivered the featured address last week, highlighting the joy of reading children's books with your kids and the various ways to make it interesting for both parent and child. The speech stayed within the time limits and was well-received by the dozen or so people in attendance. (next page »)

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