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Talk to the top

Toastmasters is a magnet for business people hoping to enhance their speaking skills -- and careers. A Times staffer steps up to the lectern.

June 01, 2008|Michelle Maltais | Times Staff Writer

You're introduced to make a presentation. Suddenly, your legs go numb, your mouth gets dry, your mind goes blank and the only thing you hear is your heart throbbing.
Sound familiar?
For many people, public speaking tops the list of immobilizing fears. And with e-mail and text-messaging becoming near-universal forms of communication, many of us don't get enough practice at just plain talking.
But there's an old-school solution in this digital age, and it beats the potentially psychologically scarring practice of visualizing audience members in their underwear: Toastmasters.
Since 1924, Toastmasters International has offered the chance to learn through self-paced speaking assignments at club meetings. The group has long attracted corporate climbers and entrepreneurs looking to enhance their speaking skills and confidence and parlay them into promotions and business opportunities.

"It helped me a lot in the business world," said Ron Pena, who owns Aristo Office Equipment in Los Angeles. "I couldn't have accomplished what I have if it wasn't for Toastmasters."

Although membership was limited to men for nearly five decades, today's Toastmasters welcomes women and people of all ethnic backgrounds.

And Toastmasters talk is cheap. Run on a volunteer model, the nonprofit organization charges a one-time initiation fee of $20, with local clubs assessing dues that run about $100 to $200 a year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, June 03, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Toastmasters club: A box accompanying an article in Sunday's Business section on public speaking gave an incorrect first name for the founder of Toastmasters International. He was Ralph C. Smedley, not Robert C. Smedley.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Toastmasters club: A box accompanying an article in the June 1 Business section on public speaking gave an incorrect first name for the founder of Toastmasters International. He was Ralph C. Smedley, not Robert C. Smedley.

I first walked into a Toastmasters meeting a couple of years ago, on the advice of a friend who credited some of her personal and professional success to the skills she honed at club meetings.

Public speaking once came easily for me, but my game had suffered after several years of working in the solitude of a darkened video-editing bay.

As a biracial woman in her 30s, I was pleasantly surprised to see such diversity in gender, generation and ethnicity at the Jewel City 29 club that meets at Glendale's American Red Cross office. (Glendale is nicknamed the Jewel City, and this was the 29th Toastmasters club to be chartered.)

The club also included people from all walks of professional life: accountants, entrepreneurs, engineers, executives, professors, students and journalists among them.

Greeting me that first night was 25-year Toastmasters veteran Darryl De Bond, a native of Sri Lanka and the dean of the club. His warm, poised greeting convinced me that he must have been there primarily for the socializing side of things.

That may be true today, but in 1983, De Bond was a newly promoted manager who knew with every bead of sweat that raced down his face and every lost word at the lectern that he needed help to conquer his growing dread of speaking.

"My nervousness was like a snowball rolling downhill," he said. "This was something I had to get a handle on."

So, on the advice of his boss, he joined the organization.

'Want you to do well'

It took him about a month to give his "ice breaker," the first of 10 speaking projects in the manual that members complete to receive the distinction of Competent Communicator.

"I would get up there and almost feel my knees knocking," De Bond said. However, knowing that he was speaking to an audience filled with people who had all been through the same experience helped him get through it. He was relieved and reassured to hear enthusiastic applause.

"There's no audience like a Toastmasters audience," said Jana Barnhill, incoming international president for Toastmasters. "They want you to do well."

In August, Barnhill will take the helm of the organization, which boasts 230,000 members in 11,500 clubs in 92 countries -- from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

The Lubbock, Texas, resident joined 23 years ago, following in the footsteps of her husband, a former president of the international organization. "The more effectively you can communicate, that is going to lead to more opportunity," Barnhill said. "The main thing that Toastmasters provides people is the courage to be confident."

The average member stays about 18 months, Barnhill said, "about the amount of time it takes them to feel comfortable."

But others like her stick around for decades, completing the various levels of the communication track and the leadership track, in which members learn to run meetings and organize events more proficiently.

"I don't think I would have gotten anywhere in management" without Toastmasters, said De Bond, 58, a former president of Transamerica Information Management Services who is now executive vice president of Pasadena-based FIS Tax Service. "This is why I find myself giving back to the club."

Interpersonal perks

But it's not just the professional perks -- it's also the interpersonal.

"You really form some wonderful friendships," he said. "That weekly meeting is quite a boost."

That boost is what has drawn Gene Tefft every Wednesday night for 35 years to Jewel City 29.

He was immediately hooked by the group of businessmen focused on developing a little more finesse and polish.

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