In meeting rooms across America, secretaries, engineers and executives gather regularly for sessions that often begin with a salute to Ralph C. Smedley.
They are members of Toastmasters International, and they still pay homage to Smedley, who founded the organization 70 years ago this month in the basement of the YMCA in Santa Ana.
Started as a self-help group for people jittery about speaking in public, Toastmasters now boasts 8,100 chapters--including about 200 in Orange County--where members for years have been meeting weekly to practice making speeches and to critique each other's oratorical efforts.
And, in the '90s, Toastmasters is finding a new niche: teaching professionals in technical fields how to prepare a talk and deliver it effectively.
"Engineers are notorious for being bad oral communicators," said William Womack, a professor of communications at Chapman University in Orange. "I have seen some who are great, but they are definitely the exception."
Still, technology experts are often called upon to meet with clients and to give presentations, and if they do badly, the employer's image may suffer. To make sure that doesn't happen, some of Southern California's biggest corporations sponsor their own Toastmasters groups, among them Fluor Daniel Inc., Bergen Brunswig Corp., CalComp Inc., Rockwell International Corp. and McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co.
Encouraging employees to become better communicators is also a way to prepare them for upper management, said Renee Christensen, an industrial psychologist and president of Employee Support Systems Co. in Orange. Even the brightest and most capable people, she said, are unlikely candidates for executive positions if they cannot present themselves well.
Executives are blunt about the problem: "Engineers tend to be very introverted," said Bob Johnson, director of contracts at Anaheim-based CalComp, a division of defense contractor Lockheed Corp.
Johnson joined Toastmasters in 1960 because he suffered almost debilitating attacks of "butterflies" before every talk he gave.
"I was scared to death when I was called upon to speak at project meetings," said Johnson, who was a business manager at Hughes Electronics in Fullerton at the time.
After a year at Toastmasters, he said, he not only overcame his fear but polished his skills so that he has since had the confidence to seek jobs that require public speaking.
Anxiety about giving speeches is quite common, said J. Douglas Andrews, professor of business communications and assistant dean of USC's School of Business Administration. In fact, it is the situation that many people say they fear most, according to several studies.
The best way to overcome that fear and to become a calm, effective speaker, he said, is simply to practice and get some feedback.
Toastmasters strives to help men and women do just that.
The meetings always start and end on time, and they follow a strict schedule. To ensure that the speeches, limited to about seven minutes each, end promptly, a timekeeper is chosen for each session to signal the speakers if they talk too long.
A member may play one of a number of roles. The Toastmaster of the Day presides over the meeting. A grammarian is appointed to monitor awkward and improper uses of language. And the "ah counter" is responsible for tallying the number of times a speaker pauses and says, "Ah . . . ."
Everyone plays the role of evaluator. At the end of the "table topics" section of the meeting, when some members are called upon to give impromptu two-minute speeches on assigned topics, everyone else evaluates the presentations. Those giving prepared speeches also get critiques. And members recognize each others' achievements by voting on the best prepared speech, the most improved speaker and the best impromptu presentation.
Though the sessions are rigorous--each includes a brief business meeting, about 10 speeches plus evaluations, all in two hours or less--the atmosphere is comfortable and supportive. At the end of each speech, during recognition times and even during the business segment, members applaud each other often and heartily. The evaluations, even when critical, are couched in kind words.
A limitation to the method, Chapman professor Womack said, is that emphasis is on actual presentation of the speech, not on how it is constructed. A person might be a bad speaker, he said, because he or she is a bad writer and cannot organize material in a logical way that an audience can follow.
But Andrews at USC contests that. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the value of effective communication in the workplace, and, given that hiring experts to coach people one on one would be prohibitively expensive, he said, Toastmasters is a cost-effective alternative.
The organization, which charges $36 a person for annual dues plus a $16 fee for materials, gives novice speakers what they need most, Andrews said: a lot of practice and constant feedback.