A four-year-old chapter of Toastmasters International, Clermont Toastmasters sees its members range in age from college students through retirees and come from all walks of life. One recent meeting featured participants who ranged in experience from first-time attendees through the evening's master of ceremonies, Gordie Allen, who has been a member since 1978.
What brings these people together? Every one of them wants to improve their communication and leadership skills. The lessons they learn here can be carried with them in their jobs, their personal relationships, and in roles they choose to assume in the community.
"I always felt that I would become a public speaker, getting in front of people on a stage, and I joined Toastmasters to help me do it," explained Regina Cruz, president of Clermont Toastmasters and a member since October 2013.
The Toastmasters organization, which has been around since 1924, believes that its members learn best by doing and receiving feedback. Each meeting is structured to give members the opportunity to speak, assume important roles to help keep others on track, and to evaluate each other's performance.
"I've learned how a meeting is run, and how the time is managed. We start all of our meetings exactly on time. I love the structure, and that everything is spelled out ahead of time. There's a strong support structure and a positive environment," noted Cruz.
Roles that members take on during a meeting vary in function. For example, the timekeeper tracks how long everyone is speaking, and uses colored lights to let speakers know roughly how much of their allotted time they have left.
The "ah" counter tracks how often each speaker uses filler words, and gives their report in the evaluation portion of the meeting. The grammarian makes note of both good and bad uses of grammar, and introduces the word of the day, for participants to incorporate into their speeches.
On any night, up to three people may be presenting prepared speeches. They speak on topics they choose, but each speech has a purpose and should meet particular goals, as spelled out in the appropriate manuals. These speeches will be evaluated by the speaker's chosen evaluator later in the evening.
"The role of evaluator is one of the hardest parts of Toastmasters," observed Cruz.
On a recent evening, attendees enjoyed two particularly dynamic speeches. Both speakers took control of their space, talking without notes and keeping the audience enthralled.
Barbara Amato spoke on the topic of "What's Your Story?"
"What could you did if you didn't know you could fail?" she asked, painting for us the picture of a three-year-old child struck with polio and written off by her doctors. That same child lived, thrived, learned to walk without crutches, and raised a family. She was the speaker's mother.
The second speaker, Monty Ray Davidson, spoke on the topic of "Passion, Hard Work, and Sacrifice." He talked about how passion for what we do motivates us to put in the hard work and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve our goals, punctuating his points with expressive gestures (and in some cases, sound effects).
After the prepared speeches come "Table Topics." The Topic Master comes up with a theme, and anyone willing to get up and speak for two minutes on a topic they don't know in advance is encouraged to do so. Newcomers are particularly encouraged, to give them practice, though experienced members will speak as well.
For example, a Topic Master may choose the topic of travel and let volunteers randomly select countries from a hat. They may then talk about what they would do on a trip to that country.
After all the speeches comes the evaluation part of the evening. "Everyone who speaks can be evaluated," noted Allen.
The evaluators for the prepared speakers go first, talking about what the speakers did that worked, what didn't, and how the speakers can improve their speeches. The timekeeper, grammarian, and "ah" counter give their reports. Votes are tallied, and ribbons are given for best speaker, best evaluator, best table topics speaker, and most improved speaker.
It's all done in a very supportive environment, with recognition for good points and humor used to good effect for blunting any sting from critiques. This is a safe place to practice, and the skills do carry over into other areas in one's life.
"Giving impromptu speeches for table topics can help you if you're in sales. It primes you to be able to answer questions you weren't expecting," explained Allen.
But one popular reason to join Toastmasters may be to become a better storyteller.
"I love listening to people getting creative with table topics and sharing their life stories," gushed Cruz.
"Don't die with your music inside you. If you have a story, come to Toastmasters and learn how to communicate it well," Allen encouraged.
Clermont Toastmasters is holding an open house on Monday, February 8, from 7-8:30pm at Faith Point Church, 290 Citrus Tower Blvd in Clermont. Refreshments will be provided. The organization welcomes all who are interested in checking them out, and members will be on hand to answer questions. For information, call 352-234-6495 or visit clermonttoastmasters.org.