Alicia Edwards has five to seven minutes to impress upon her audience the catastrophic nature of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest garbage dump in the world.
The lights are dimmed.
The timekeeper starts the clock.
A screen with a PowerPoint presentation gleams in the darkness.
“A show of hands for anyone who’s eaten plastic,” Ms. Edwards says. It is her lead-in to a speech describing how plastic and other waste materials from the Garbage Patch enter the water system.
A grammarian, Nathan Maurer, keeps count of Ms. Edwards’s use of “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows,” as she speaks. For many, these words, phrases and pauses are commonly used breaks during speech, known as “fillers.”
However, they are taboo for Ms. Edwards and other members of the Bronx Toastmasters Club of Riverdale.
With meetings held at the Riverdale Neighborhood House on the first and fourth Wednesdays of every month, the chapter is one of over 14,000 Toastmasters International clubs around the globe. Each group focuses on improving its members’ public speaking, leadership and communication skills. The organization dates back to 1924. The Riverdale chapter began in 1999.
Since then, club members in Riverdale say their ranks have grown. Today, the chapter here boasts over 30 members whose ages range between 20 and 80.
At each meeting, four members present speeches to the group, with each speech falling in a different category. Ms. Edwards’ Garbage Patch speech is an example of a “Delivering Bad News” speech, but members can present other categories as well, including “Demonstration,” “Speaking Under Fire,” in which the speaker must address a hostile audience, and “Presenting an Award.”
The audience has one minute to write down compliments and critiques at the end of each speech. Later, four other club members present more in-depth evaluations of the speeches.
The evaluations, too, are subject to timekeeping and grammatical analysis.