October 22, 2012
Want to improve your speaking skills? Join the club
Membership in the communication-skills group Toastmasters International has grown, which officials say signals workers’ desire to stand out during in-person interactions.
The organization reported an all-time membership high of 273,895 around the world in 2011, which was a 21 percent increase in five years.
Those members join Toastmasters groups, which are attached to either a community or a company, hoping to improve skills including public speaking, evaluating performance and keeping composure when answering questions in an interview setting. Meetings run at regular intervals for memberships that usually range from a dozen to two dozen in individual clubs.
“In an economic downturn, people were and are looking to differentiate themselves,” says Daniel Rex, the Toastmasters International executive director. “Communication skills help with that.”
Founded in 1924 in the basement of a YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif., the group took the name Toastmasters because most of its members wanted to improve public speaking skills, especially giving toasts. As decades continued, more skills were incorporated into the program, including interviewing and critiquing the work of others.
Most new members want to first work on speaking in front of a group and overcome nerves.
“That’s what Toastmasters is so good about,” says Jody Davis-Curless, who oversees several clubs in the Dayton, Ohio, region. “Yes, it’s working on speaking skills and learning how to present in an organized way. But people especially have a fear of getting up and talking in front of (other) people. It gives you some confidence to stand up and talk.”
A significant growth area for the organization is corporate clubs. Individual companies can form internal clubs for employees only, providing an option for extra training that is not required by the organization, Rex says.
New members follow a predetermined course for earning distinctions based on the number of speeches they give or activities they do.
Some members span generations. Joanne Hawkins, a Distinguished Toastmaster (the highest level) in the Beacon Toastmasters Club in Beavercreek, Ohio, first learned of the club from her father, who was a member in the 1950s. Women were admitted into clubs beginning in 1973.
“I’m an instructor, so the process of going through this really benefited me in my ability to talk spontaneously,” says Hawkins, a military logistics and foreign military sales instructor for the Department of Defense. “I can structure my lessons and deliver my materials. Nobody likes sitting in a class where the instructor is not speaking in complete sentences.”
Most club meetings include speeches, group critiques of those speeches, and an impromptu question session, meant to simulate an interview environment or the question-and-answer section of a presentation. Club members say those three facets combine to improve different levels of communication skills.
Those skills can translate to numerous industries, officials said. During a period when more business professionals are communicating through email, text message and mobile devices, comfort in in-person settings has increased in importance, which officials say has almost certainly helped the club’s growth.
“One woman in our club has her own business,” says Kathy Hayes, vice president of membership for Dayton United Communicators. “She told me, ‘Now I’ll go up and talk to anybody, ask people questions and come out of my shell.’ That’s what this club does. It makes people more comfortable.”
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