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THE RELUCTANT NOVICE TOASTMASTERS : Telling Tales : Ad-libbing a speech for the group's local chapter becomes an out-of-body experience.

January 10, 1991| This week's Reluctant Novice is free-lance writer Robyn Loewenthal.

Your editor reads that fear of public speaking outranks the fear of death by a 2-to-1 margin. She calls you into the office and suggests a visit to a chapter of Toastmasters International, billed as "the world's premier self-improvement club." You try to negotiate. How about rattlesnake wrestling or bungie cord jumping? But your fate is sealed.

En route you review your relevant experience: one required speech class, freshman year in high school. You've blocked the part about persuasive and informative speeches from your memory. But oral interpretation was OK--it didn't seem like public speaking. The guillotine speech from Dickens went well. Your mother said Ronald Colman never sounded better. Mrs. Brockway, your teacher, preferred the student who read Erma Bombeck--always a crowd-pleaser.

At 7 p.m. you enter the small meeting room in Ventura's American Commercial Bank. No one is telling jokes or clinking wineglasses. The scene resembles a PTA gathering--not a cummerbund in sight. People from their 20s to their 60s welcome you. John Vigen, a retired CPA and president of a club for singles, clues you in.

"Members are at different stages in the program," he says, handing you a beginners manual. "To become a Competent Toastmaster, the first of three ranks," he continues, "you must first give 10 speeches outlined in the beginners manual." The booklet is supposed to be helpful and interesting. To you it looks like a 12-Step program for wayward debaters.

From the podium Vigen leads 18 members and guests in the Pledge of Allegiance, which sets the tone for what's to come. Those who were chatting animatedly around the large horseshoe table suddenly assume a formal pose for the evening. Duties are announced in rapid succession.

Besides a toastmaster, there is a timekeeper and a grammarian, who introduces a new vocabulary word. And, of course, the dreaded ah counter, who monitors fillers like ah , er and um . There will be three speakers and an evaluator assigned to each. Rounding out the group are a humorist, a vote-counter, a general evaluator for the meeting and a table-topics master. You feel like Alice at the tea party.

Events begin to blur. Everybody is introducing somebody on the podium. Handshakes and applause abound. First Denise Djemal reads a book review. Next, members usher in the Red Carpet Ceremony with a thundering table-top tattoo.

Vigen whips out a 3-by-3-foot piece of ragged red Astroturf, flings it to the floor and awards Steve Mulqueen his Competent Toastmaster (CTM) pin and inducts Bonnie Isaacs as a new member. A new flurry of handshakes, ebullient applause and a joke precede Margie Bradley's presentation of Frank Marasco. As table-topics master, it is his job to choose people to make brief, impromptu comments on subjects of his choice.

Mulqueen leans over and whispers, "Beware, anyone is free game to give a short speech." Then Marasco calls your name. You are wrenched from your secure place as an observer. Guided by green, orange and red lights on the metal timer box, you have two minutes to speak extemporaneously on a topic you barely heard.

An out-of-body experience begins as your autonomic nervous system accelerates. Time is suspended as you regard a sea of friendly, expectant faces.

You watch your twin rise and hug the wall. The timer light changes from green to warning orange. Your muffled words reach your ears from a distant source. Do they make sense? Are they in English? The red light appears. You finish. They applaud. You are about to congratulate yourself on a job well done. But then you remember, these people would applaud the opening of an envelope. Mrs. Brockway's last evaluation echoes across the years: "Don't wear those dangling earrings during a speech. They're too distracting."

Once you are off the hook, you relax while others practice oratorical skills by addressing the issues of our time: Mark Florio on the communication gap between men and women, Joe Walker on water conservation and Elizabeth Lopez on AIDS. Evaluators offer constructive comments. Speakers receive input from fellow members on narrow, folded slips of paper.

Now you can appreciate the ancient dictate of rhetoric as something "to instruct and to delight."

As the meeting draws to a close, grammarian Letha Marshall congratulates those who used ersatz , the word for the day. Members pass their voting strips to counter Mary Jones, who announces tonight's winners: Best Table Topic--Elizabeth Lopez; Best Evaluator--Fred Romani; Best Speaker--Joe Walker.

You enjoyed the meeting, particularly the hot peach pie a la mode shared with the group afterward at a local coffee shop.

But one thing haunts you like Jay Gatsby's green light. Next Tuesday night you will face that timer box with a four- to six-minute speech.

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