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October 11, 2001 Toastmasters take the horror out of public speaking



by Anna Bratulic

There is an art to giving a good speech. Certain people just seem to have the knack, and some have used their public speaking abilities to rally nations — think of Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I have a dream”) and Winston Churchill (“This was their finest hour”).

Lucy Wong, president of the Concordia Toastmasters Club, has to think a bit when asked who is a good speaker among today’s public figures. She thinks Queen Elizabeth is pretty good, but she could use a little help with her delivery. “You’re not supposed to look like you’re reading.”

Public speaking is by no means limited to world leaders. After taking five years out to raise her family, Wong was jolted by the fast pace of the workforce. She took computer courses and kept up with the technology, but admitted, “I lost a little bit of self-esteem while I was at home.”

She joined the branch of Toastmasters at Concordia to improve her communication skills three years ago, not long after it was founded.

“In life today, we will eventually be called upon to do some public speaking,” Wong said. “I thought I couldn’t do it, but I said if I keep saying that to myself, I’m not going to get anywhere.”

Communication skills vital today

Anne Borsohalmi, VP public relations for the club, said that increasingly, “ordinary” people are being asked to speak publicly. “Whether they want you to do training or address a public issue, you never know when, at work, they will ask you to speak in front of a group.” She joined Toastmasters last year after taking some “effective speaking” courses in Concordia’s Centre for Continuing Education.

“Many people say, ‘Oh, I’m not scared to speak in front of a group,’ but can they speak effectively?” Speaking in a monotone, pacing, and fiddling with objects are some of the most distracting habits in non-effective speakers. Holding papers while speaking is also a common mistake, as it draws attention to shaky hands.

At the club’s meetings, participants give prepared speeches of a specific length, on a topic of their own choice.

The meetings are well structured. For example, somebody has to give a toast at the beginning of each meeting. Someone must also tell a humorous story and provide a “thought of the day” to break the ice. Speeches are evaluated by fellow members, and these evaluations are subsequently evaluated. Occasionally, to keep people on their oratory toes, members are called upon to give impromptu speeches on pre-determined topics.

Toastmasters International began in the United States in 1924 to help people improve their communications and leadership skills. The Concordia chapter opened in 1998 and has grown to about 30 members, most of whom are Concordia alumni. There is a mix of backgrounds, including professors, businesspeople, some students, and even an Ironman triathlete. Wong is hoping at least eight more people will join this year.

The Concordia Toastmasters Club will hold an open house on Monday, Oct. 29, in Room 760 of the Hall Building, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W, and all are invited. You can also contact Anne Borsohalmi at aborsohalmi@videotron.ca, or you can visit their Web site at www.angelfire.com/co/TOASTM.