Toastmasters International is a group that helps people confront one of their greatest fears — public speaking. It is a nonprofit organization that has over a quarter million members worldwide in 12,000 plus clubs. There are TI clubs from Burbank to Bahrain and inside of companies like American Airlines and the Walt Disney Co.
I joined the Westside Toastmasters club here in Santa Monica and began attending weekly meetings at the Santa Monica Place community room every Wednesday at 7 p.m. for two reasons; one, to become a better public speaker, and two, because when I was looking at the club I was intrigued by the wide selection of people who attended, and I enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie.
As a divorce lawyer, I am in front of people speaking constantly. When I am arguing a case to a judge, in a packed courtroom downtown, and I have only five minutes to make my point, the pressure is on. Usually I am not nervous or anxious when I speak. I’ve been at this long enough that I know how to handle the butterflies and I realize they go away very quickly.
But judges do not give feedback on my performance, and tips on how to be more effective. They make rulings that impact my client’s lives, but they do not critique my presentation, other than saying I won or lost.
To be a more effective presenter, whether on stage or in a courtroom, it takes both practice and training. I have the practice, I needed the training. So I signed up and jumped in to the Toastmaster pool. The meetings are broken down into three parts.
There is a “Table Topics” portion where you have two minutes to answer some impromptu question. This is to build the “thinking on your feet” skill. Next there are prepared speeches, where someone gives a five to seven minute presentation. Finally, there are evaluations where the prepared speech presenter gets critiqued and receives feedback.
Directed speaking and topical evaluations makes for a positive learning environment. It also breeds a sense of community as members become better speakers, and when they participate in contests, the club cheers them on.
Community is a strong element in the success or failure of most organizations. It goes by many names, from team spirit to service work, but at its core it is people helping people to achieve their dreams.
The community feeling of my Toastmasters club is strong. There usually is a group of people who go out afterwards for beers and chicken wings at Barney’s Beanery and that’s a great time to get to know someone better. Because Toastmasters is a worldwide organization, I’ve had the fun of meeting a young German engineering student who came to visit our club.
It is this “shared endeavor” experience that leads to closer connections. For example, my friend Rona Lewis is a physical trainer, dietitian, and she’s a paid public speaker. Like me, Rona is also an author. Her book series, “Does This Cookbook Make Me Look Fat?” are works that feature light and healthy recipes mixed with large doses of her wicked funny humor. The latest book she has written, “Does This Cookbook Make Me Look Fat — Healthy Recipes for Entertaining” has just been accepted by Barnes & Noble, and is available on her website at www.ronalewis.com.
It’s a snappy read with great low-fat recipes, each of which has wine pairings by three different sommeliers. The recipes are long on flavor and short on fat. They are easy to prepare with the basics of most family kitchens. I have used her books, tasted her cooking and been inspired by her to continue growing in my public speaking ability.
The beauty of this self-paced, club environment is that anyone who wants to improve themselves can — and do so at a pace that is comfortable for them. From the terrified newbie who squeaks out a two-minute table topics speech on the joys of chocolate chip cookies, to the professional speaker, Toastmasters can provide helpful feedback.
With the help of my fellow club members, on the outside I’ve improved my speaking ability to become more effective. On the inside, the butterflies go away quicker, but best of all, I’ve made some great friends who have shared with me their life experiences.
That’s why I wanted to raise a toast to Toastmasters.
David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969.