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Toastmasters clubs cultivate confidence for public speakers

Holly Nelms • Apr 5, 2016 at 10:30 AM

Public speaking can be frightening, especially for those who aren’t used to speaking in front of large crowds of unfamiliar people.

To help ease this fear, nine Toastmasters clubs have been established in the Tri-Cities area that allow members to practice public speaking in a friendly environment.

“It’s a way for me to become a better community person, to lead by example, to learn what it takes to become a leader and to take the opportunities that Toastmasters provides to speak and to take leadership responsibilities,” said Maureen Merritt, member of the Wednesday Orators and Northeast Advanced Toastmasters clubs.

Merritt joined Toastmasters in 2009, two years after her husband Rick. She said the organization’s overall mission is to help people communicate better in a variety of situations.

Like Merritt, Wednesday Orators member Virginia Thompson said she has observed the benefits of Toastmasters since becoming a member in 1999.

“Over the years, just in my club, I have seen people come in who could not give a speech in front of a group of people, who could not answer off-the-cuff questions like we do in our meetings, and they advanced over time to be extremely confident and very good presenters,” Thompson said. “It’s a very successful program.”

Maureen Merritt said Toastmasters was started by Ralph Smedley, a YMCA employee. Smedley formed the organization because he wanted men to learn how to speak better, which he felt would help them perform better in interviews and get better jobs.

In the 91 years since it was founded, Toastmasters has opened its membership to both men and women and grown into an international organization with clubs in almost every country worldwide.

Though some Toastmasters clubs are specialized for certain schools or businesses, others are open to the public. Clubs in this region include Wednesday Orators, Tuesday Toasters and Twilight Toasters in Kingsport; Twin City Toasters in Bristol, Tenn.; Toast to Education and Northeast Advanced Toastmasters in Blountville; Lakeway Area Toastmasters in Morristown; Speaking Dynamically in Marion, Va.; and Toasting the Buccaneers in Johnson City.

Wednesday Orators, Tuesday Toasters, Twilight Toasters, Twin City Toasters, Toast to Education and Lakeway Area Toastmasters are all open for public membership.

Rick Merritt, who is a member of both Blountville clubs, said Toastmasters provides a risk-free opportunity for learning.

“For me, Toastmasters is an opportunity for primarily students – because Toast to Education is at Northeast State – to get an opportunity to learn speaking skills and leadership skills in a non-threatening environment where they’re not going to lose a job, and they’re not going to get a poor grade,” he said. “They’re going to just get constructive criticism and evaluations and learn how to give those types of evaluations, as well, in that type of atmosphere.”

Each new member starts out with a mentor who serves as a guide in the speech preparation process. When a member feels comfortable giving a speech, he or she can sign up to present at an upcoming meeting.

Thompson said there are typically one to two speakers during each club meeting. The presentations, which can range from 5 to 15 minutes in length, are assessed by an evaluator and a grammarian, who provide encouragement and suggestions for improvement.

Maureen Merritt said all of the local Toastmasters clubs are always accepting new members. Each member must pay membership dues twice a year, and new members must pay an additional membership fee, which covers manuals that help members prepare their speeches.

While Merritt said Toastmasters clubs are particularly beneficial for businesspeople who must speak publicly on a regular basis, she and Thompson agreed that Toastmasters is helpful for everyone.

“It’s really a good way to learn, and once again, it’s a friendly environment,” Thompson said. “It’s usually a small group of people. You get to know these people over time, and you’re comfortable talking in front of them, so that when you have to get up in front of a bunch of strangers, whether it’s 100 or 500 or whatever, you are really ahead in the game.”

For more information on the Toastmasters clubs in this area, contact Duffy Wigle of Wednesday Orators at 423-276-4748 or [email protected], Jake Mitchell of Tuesday Toasters at 423-402-5702 or [email protected] or Elizabeth Fox of Twilight Toasters at 423-946-7272 or [email protected]

Our monthly Join the Club series is designed to introduce local readers to various clubs and organizations in the region. If you'd like to suggest a club for the series, email Sunday Stories editor Carmen Musick at [email protected]