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The Rev. Charles A. Deacon: Club helps me hone the art of speaking

“I can’t stand up and talk in front of a large group of people. I’m too nervous, and my knees begin to knock.” How many times have you heard that? Or have you said that? Recently, I was at a meeting where a woman stood up to speak about something her church was doing. The first words out of her mouth were that excuse.

There is an international organization that will help you feel more at ease when asked to talk before a group. It was started by Ralph Smedley in 1924 in the basement of the YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif. After he graduated from college, he became director of education at that Y. One thing he noticed was that the young men needed some help in the art of public speaking, and how to run a meeting.

Smedley decided to help them. Rather than give classes, he used a social club approach. He called the group the Toastmasters Club. His thought was that a pleasant social atmosphere would be appealing to the young men.

The whole purpose of the club was to provide a place to learn and to practice speaking skills. That way the men could receive supportive feedback.

The mission of Toastmasters International is to help people “learn the arts of speaking, listening and thinking – vital skills that promote self-actualization, enhance leadership, foster human understanding and contribute to the betterment of mankind.”

This is done three ways: First, members give impromptu speeches; second, they present prepared speeches; and third, they offer and receive constructive evaluations.

As a clergyman with more than 50 years of experience, you would think I would not have butterflies in my stomach, but I do. In Toastmasters they say, “We teach you how to have those butterflies fly in formation.”

My first wife had always wanted to attend Toastmasters, but it didn’t fit into our schedules. After we retired in 2002, we found a club just minutes away from our home and visited. We were welcomed, and there was no pressure to join. The meeting was well organized. We heard three prepared speeches and three extemporaneous speeches. Also, there was an “ah” counter, a grammarian and a word-of-the-day.

The next Sunday, my wife counted the number of “ahs” in my sermon. I guess I needed Toastmasters, I thought to myself. So we both joined the organization.

I worked for Niagara County Social Services for 15 years. One of my positions was as a supervisor in the Adult Protective Services unit. I was told to be more visible in the community. This meant contacting agencies, and arranging a time to present a program about the unit. My problem was that although I knew the subject, I had trouble conveying it.

After attending that first Toastmasters meeting, I wished I had joined three years earlier. I realized I could have done a better sales job.

My first wife died in 2005. Five years later, I married a woman whom I met at Toastmasters. Ironically, the women knew each other. We now belong to two Toastmaster clubs.

Since Toastmasters is international, you can find clubs all over the world. I have visited clubs in Mesa, Ariz., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Do you want your stomach butterflies to fly in formation? Find a Toastmasters club today.