Toast of the Town: Local Toastmasters International group addresses fear of public speaking

Tyler Cerny, the owner of Strata Design, wanted to boost his leadership skills and the profile of his company. Strata Design specializes in modular casework, plastic laminate furniture, and store fixtures for hospitals, medical office buildings, schools, retail stores, and other commercial buildings. He was also moving into a leadership role at the Architectural Woodwork Institute and knew that would necessitate some growth as well.

Both would require becoming more comfortable addressing others, especially larger groups.

“I knew I’d be giving speeches,” Cerny said.

So, he turned to Toastmasters. And he says he’s glad he did.

“It has been wonderful for me, as I was moving into a leadership role in a national association and knew I would be giving speeches to larger crowds.

“It has also paid dividends for me in leading my team at Strata Design,” Cerny said, whose wife Jen also joined to help boost her skincare product sales job.

Matthew French at the podium.

According to numerous surveys over the years, public speaking is the greatest fear among the American public. Toastmasters International brings together people from diverse backgrounds who, like Cerny, wish to become more adept at speaking in front of others.

The organization welcomed the Cernys as it does all new members. Eric Davis, the current president of the local Cherry Capital Toastmasters, joined four years ago after hearing his sister say how much she enjoyed it and how beneficial it was for her.

“I’d heard of Toastmasters some years ago,” he said. “I was working and didn’t feel I had the time. Six months before retiring I started attending.”

As a pharmacist at Munson, he interacted with the public and occasionally did presentations for other Munson staff members.

“It gives me confidence at Toastmasters or social events,” he said.

Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs.

It dates back to 1905, when Ralph C. Smedley, director of education at the YMCA, saw a need for the men in his community to learn how to speak, conduct meetings, plan programs and work on committees. So, he decided to organize a club where they could learn those skills in a social environment. The first unofficial Toastmasters meeting was held on March 24, 1905.

It wasn’t until 1970 the organization admitted its first female member, Helen Blanchard – under the name Homer Blanchard. Ironically, she became the first female international president in 1985. It has since expanded to more than 15,800 clubs in 149 countries, with a membership exceeding 300,000.

Why the name Toastmasters? Back when Smedley founded the organization, “toastmaster” was a popular term that referred to a person who gave toasts at banquets and other occasions. Now the group prides itself on helping members develop such communication and other leadership skills.

Members of the local club come from all walks of life, from sales to business owners to a pastor. There’s a diversity of ages as well, from the 30s to 70s.

Cathy Evans, Dana Cowell and Lauren Flynn

Merek Roman is on the younger end of the scale. Casey Cowell, his stepfather, suggested he look into it.

“At U.S. Robotics, he had all his salespeople go through it. As a salesperson I know I can always get better,” Roman said.

He even convinced his mother, Dana Cowell, to join.

“I do some speaking gigs with Casey,” said Dana Cowell, “so it’s nice to feel I have better stage presence.”

She said it has helped her to feel more at ease when addressing groups of all sizes.

“And it’s pretty fun,” she said.

The meetings follow a regular format. Each meeting has a leader, determined at the previous meeting. They are divided into three parts. Table Topics are brief impromptu speeches, where members are called upon to spontaneously discourse for 45 to 90 seconds.

Prepared speeches are assigned in advance; they are longer than the Table Topics. The third part is evaluations, where the speakers receive feedback on portions that were well done and areas for improvement.

In addition to the local meetings, Toastmasters hosts an international convention each year, webinars, even a public speaking competition. The organization also offers personal and professional development through Pathways, a series of seminars and learning experiences based around areas such as coaching, presentations and collaboration.

Everyone is welcome to attend the meetings, which take place once a week: Thursdays from 7:30am-8:30am. They went to a virtual format during the pandemic, and now are a hybrid with in-person the first Thursday of the month and Zoom the other dates.

To become a member, there is an annual fee of $90. Apparently it’s money well spent, as members are uniformly enthusiastic about the group and its benefits.

“I feel I’m better able to express myself more effectively. I’m less apprehensive in a group,” said Davis.

Roman said the impromptu Table Topics force people to think on their feet. Without notes to refer to, he said speakers can lose their train of thought or even freeze.

For Cowell, the ability to be a part of the organization from anywhere is a benefit. While she prefers meeting in person to meeting via Zoom, she says being able to be part of the group virtually in the winter months without having to travel is a boon. In addition, she said she and her son participated in another club while in Florida.

Cerny said a traditional college education often neglects teaching skills necessary to succeed in business or social settings.

“You can get a business degree, an engineering degree, whatever. Then suddenly you’ve got to launch a project or program,” he said, which takes different skills – skills he says Toastmasters can help a person develop.

Perhaps best of all, he’s gained something he never expected.

“It’s become a group of friends,” he said.