By Sue Botos
Almost everyone is familiar with that pulse-pounding, hand-sweating feeling that usually accompanies public speaking. For Rocky River Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Liz Manning, this anxiety made it hard to catch her breath.
Recalling her first speech at a Chamber luncheon, Manning remembered, “I thought it would be easy, but I had trouble breathing.”
The experience ultimately lead her to join Toastmasters, a national program that encourages members’ confidence in front of a crowd by studying manuals, practicing and helping each other at workshoplike club meetings.
“I saw this as a way to improve and get practice. It’s a great way to get the opportunity to practice each week, and I don’t get the nerves I used to,” Manning added.
Manning had the chance to use what she has learned during an August meeting of Westlake Toastmasters Club #497 at the Westlake Porter Public Library, where she was Toastmaster for the day. This role, one of several assumed by members during a meeting, most resembles what she does at Chamber functions, according to Manning. She also served as “Wordmaster,” introducing the word of the day, “willowwacks,” a wooded uninhabited area.
Other club members took the parts of evaluators for speeches, “Tipmaster” (the day’s top was “victory loves preparation”), grammarian, timer and “ah counter,” who was responsible for tallying fillers such as “ums” and “ahs.” A secret greeter was also assigned to meet each person coming in the door.
As with each meeting, two speakers were featured. Susan Pemberton, giving her informative talk, spoke about Minnie Pearl, complete with an attention-getting “Howdeee!” as introduction. Newcomer Frank Butler did an “icebreaker” about his home in England.
“Each speech has an objective,” explained Manning. “Your first speech is the icebreaker, then you go through the workbooks and pick your own topic, but follow an objective.” She said that after 10 speeches, given on a club member’s own schedule, he or she is certified, and can move on to become a “competent communicator” and ultimately a “distinguished Toastmaster.”
Toastmasters is not completely about prepared speeches, however. A section called “table topics” requires the club member to talk, off the cuff, for one or two minutes on a surprise topic. At this meeting, it was a photograph pulled randomly from an envelope.
“This gives you a chance to speak spontaneously. I really admire the mayor (Pam Bobst, of Rocky River) for her ability to do this. I’ve learned to have a stash in my head and spin a topic a bit,” said Manning. She also pointed out that this skill is handy for meetings and job interviews, where a person can be put on the spot with an unexpected question.
A Toastmasters meeting is timed down to the minute, so busy people can fit the gathering into a lunch hour. Meetings are held at various times and places and, according to Manning, usually draw about 10 members. She said her group ranges in background from stay-at-home moms to doctors to a magician, Neil Rozum, who asked a guest to assist with his “Jokemaster” presentation.
The gathering concluded with evaluations of even the meeting itself. All assessments were good-natured and offered constructive suggestions, especially for Butler’s icebreaker. Manning noted that there is a “pay it forward” attitude where more seasoned members help out novices.
These suggestions are often turned into goals, which Manning said are personal for each member. “My first-year goal is to finish the manual and shake the nerves. I used to be absolutely terrified,” she said, adding that it helps for her to see her audience before speaking, and get used to who is present. She did admit that even a short one- to two-minute speech seems much longer when in front of a crowd.
As for the old adage of picturing the audience in their underwear as a relaxation method, Manning said that this does not work well.
Anyone who wants to learn more about Toastmasters is invited to an open house on Oct. 26 at the Westlake Porter Public Library, beginning with lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. A one-hour regular meeting will follow, after which a reception will be held until 1:30 to answer any questions about the group.
Manning, who is vice president of public relations for her club, highly recommends the experience. “It’s a good sense of accomplishment, especially when you hear the feedback.”