Grabbing the gift of gab
Local Toastmasters conquer one of life’s great fears

David Bygel, president of the La Plata County Luminaries Toastmasters, poses for a quick portrait in the Old Post Office Building on Main Ave., on Tuesday afternoon. There are two chapters of the national organization, which is aimed at improving people’s public speaking skills./Photo By Stephen Eginoire.

by Stew Mosberg

Not everyone has the gift of gab, or feels comfortable standing in front of a group to make a speech or bestow an award. Sweaty palms, heart palpitations and weakness in the knees are common among those who dread public appearances. Fortunately, there is a solution for overcoming those conditions – one that is less intensive than psychotherapy and doesn’t cost nearly as much.

Toastmasters International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people develop confidence, improve communication and learn leadership skills. Founded 85 years ago, it now has more than a quarter-million members in more than 90 countries. And Durango is lucky enough to have two chapters. One of them, the “Earlybird Club,” has been in existence for more than 50 years, getting together at Christina’s Restaurant at 7 a.m. once a week. The other, “La Plata County Luminaries,” meets on Thursdays at noon in the La Plata County Courthouse.

There are no conventional instructors at the hour-long meetings. Instead, the approximately 20 members take turns giving and evaluating each other’s presentations. This unique process is seen as vital to the program’s success. Group members also give impromptu talks on assigned topics, conduct meetings, serve as officers in various leadership roles, and learn rules related to timing, grammar and parliamentary procedure.

The atmosphere at one recent “Luminaries” meeting was relaxed and fun, with jokes (but not at someone’s expense) and lots of applause and encouragement. All new members are assigned a mentor to help them settle in and make it through their first speaking role. At that particular get together, one4 young new member, Gwen Eberhart, was scheduled to give her “ice breaker” speech, which only occurs when the initiate feels comfortable doing so. This was Eberhart’s fourth week attending and her topic was “Wonderful Things in My Life.” It was scheduled to run five to seven minutes in length, and she did it, without rushing, in six.

The president of the “Luminaries” chapter is David Bygel, but his function is more as administrator than instructor. Bygel, long time information services manager for La Plata County, belonged to the Earlybird group for four years before staring the “Luminaries” chapter at the Courthouse, where he and some of the chapter’s participants work.

Attendance at one afternoon session included a dozen men and women; all eager and obviously delighted to be there. Several tables were joined together to form a circle, and each member took a seat and placed a name card in front of themselves.

Speaking assignments are determined by each member a few weeks in advance, so they have plenty of time to prepare. The week’s designated moderator started the meeting, made introductory remarks, and walked to the table-top lectern periodically during his running commentary on obtuse state laws, his chosen topic. The talk was both humorous and informative, and in between stints at the podium he called upon others to make their presentations.

One person per meeting has the job of choosing a word for the day and giving its definition and origin. The word that day was “sanction,” and the goal for everyone was to try to incorporate it into their individual presentations. The exercise adds an element of spontaneity to the process and gets members to think on their feet. Another exercise is called “table topic,” and the member in charge of it brings a bowl of jelly beans. When the candies came around to each attendee, they selected one of the beans and spoke extemporaneously about why they chose that color. The dissertations ran the gamut from childhood memories to clothing to room décor favorites.

Every speech, as well as the overall meeting, is evaluated by the attendees on “closed ballots.” They are then presented by the designated member to each orator, in a positive and encouraging manner, focusing on what was done right and what could be improved.

Members learn communication skills by working in their “Competent Communication” manual, which is a series of 10 self-paced speaking assignments designed to instill a basic foundation in public speaking. Participants learn skills related to the use of humor, gestures, eye contact, using visual aids, and proper organization and delivery. Members also learn leadership skills by taking on the various meeting roles and serving as officers at the club. This serves as a sort of on-the-job learning, where participants aren’t lectured to, but instead are given responsibilities to lead.

Cynthia Miller, author of Radical Gratitude, has attended the Thursday meetings since the fall of 2008. She joined Toastmasters to help her promote her work through book signings, lectures and seminars.

“I was scheduled to give a talk at the Durango Arts Center,” she remembered, “and I was anxious about doing it. I wanted to learn how to speak better.” After attending only a few Toastmasters meetings, she felt more confident. Since her Arts Center presentation, Dr. Miller has given two more speeches, one of them in Boulder. “The meetings are friendly, comfortable and very supportive. Everyone wants to help you.” •

For information about the “La Plata County Luminaries” chapter of Toastmasters, call (970)382-6305

The initial fee when joining Toastmasters International is $27 to cover the cost of materials. Chapter membership costs $20 for six months. Club participation is nonexclusive, and members can attend any of the clubs throughout the world.