It wouldn’t be a stretch to say public speaking is an intimidating task. The prospect of getting up in front of a crowd and giving an eloquent speech has reduced many confident people to a pile of nerves.
But luckily there’s an organization helping people develop this exact skill. It’s called the Toastmasters Club. And it’s helped many overcome their public speaking fears.
“The system is a wonderful system to help people who have problems speaking,” said Anne Connolly, the vice president of public relations and membership at the Bronx Toastmasters of Riverdale Club.
“I’ve only been in the club for a few years, but I have grown considerably. Because I suffered most of my life (with) public speaking, I can talk to a person one-on-one — but when it comes to interviews and actually getting on a podium, I’ve been a nervous wreck.”
Meeting at the Riverdale Neighborhood House, this local chapter has helped people with public speaking issues for the past 21 years, club president Adam Cole said. In fact, it even led the way as the borough’s first Toastmasters group.
“There were other clubs in Westchester County, and there were certainly clubs in Manhattan. But there was no club in the Bronx,” Cole said.
Although the club now boasts a couple-dozen members, it lost a significant number when the coronavirus pandemic first shut everything down last year. But the virus can’t take all the blame: The club struggled with membership even before that, Connolly said, made even worse once in-person meetings ended and the Zoom videoconferencing app took over.
At one point last summer, in fact, the chapter’s membership went down to eight. That’s significant because rules enforced by the broader Toastmasters Club organization don’t recognize chapters with fewer than eight members, putting the Riverdale group’s existence in jeopardy.
“We were almost going to be closed,” Connolly said. “We were so close. We had lost that many members.”
Connolly and Cole first tried boosting numbers by inviting back old members.
“We sent out so many emails and (made) phone calls to former members, and didn’t hear anything,” Connolly said. “Nothing. It was unbelievable how much COVID affected people as far as communication.”
But through a mix of advertisements, local press coverage and word-of-mouth, the chapter turned things around, driving membership back up to more than 20 by December.
Frankie Graham-Bell was one of those new members. The Yonkers resident said she had wanted to join Toastmasters for years, but never felt she had the time to go in-person because of her family and work responsibilities.
So, the pandemic and its aversion to in-person events provided the perfect opportunity.
“It was difficult to go physically to the meetings on Wednesdays because my husband had other things to do,” Graham-Bell said. “And then the pandemic hit, and I was like, ‘I have nothing else to do, so I might as well work on this craft.’”
Graham-Bell already is moving up. She’ll take over one of Connolly’s roles as membership vice president for the next year, starting in July. Connolly’s public relations role will go to Anne Leighton. And Brenda Aiken-Thomson will take over as president.
Currently, the chapter is still meeting over Zoom, Cole said, although they have plans to start gathering in-person sooner rather than later. When that happens, those attending a Toastmasters gathering will typically find activities like making prepared speeches, working on impromptu speaking, and practicing leadership skills.
“There’s a lot that happens in a Toastmasters meeting that helps develop people’s overall communication and leadership skills,” Cole said. “And that’s the intent of the organization.”
Each meeting is broken into two parts. In the first half — called the “Toastmaster Section” — three members deliver prepared speeches as if they were in front of an audience.
That’s followed by an impromptu speaking activity called “Table Topics.” Here, an assigned person asks other participants off-the-cuff questions about assorted subjects. For example, Cole said, they might ask someone to recount their favorite July 4th memory.
It’s this particular activity that drew Graham-Bell into the club when she attended her first meeting as a guest. She was asked what she wanted to do when the pandemic ends.
“And I just gave a really relaxed response that I can’t wait to go to the movies,” Graham-Bell said. “That’s my thing. And eat real movie theater popcorn, and pay overpriced money for drinks.”
In the meeting’s second half, speeches are evaluated — run by the aptly named “general evaluate” who oversees several positions that act as quality control for speeches from the first section.
“Those two or three speakers will have someone looking at their speech,” Cole said.
“The way they deliver it. The way it’s structured. The way they’ve spoken. The use of body language. All that sort of good stuff.”
Other evaluators keep track of important structural elements, like the use of grammar, filler words like “um,” and the overall time of the speech.
“And we do that because we’re trying to get people into the discipline and the habit of being efficient with the words that they use and the time that they have to get the message they want to get across to their audience,” Cole said.
Graham-Bell takes these speaking lessons from Toastmasters to her job as a professor at Mercy College — teaching her students how to speak more clearly in their presentations. However, Graham-Bell’s favorite thing about Toastmasters, she said, is how the club feels like a family.
“We’ve never met face-to-face, which is the weirdest thing because I know that we have so much camaraderie,” she said. “And we literally get excited when we see the people that we know or we see our members in the meeting.”
CORRECTION: Adam Cole is the president of the Bronx Toastmasters of Riverdale Club. A photo caption in the June 24 edition misidentified him.