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Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2007:10:29 16:06:12

By John L. Moore


When speaking before groups, Sheila Donnelly once used lots of unnecessary words and phrases such as “you know” and “um” and “ah.”

“I used filler words,” Donnelly said. Then she joined the Electric City Toastmasters Club, a Scranton organization that is part of Toastmasters International. As a result of her Toastmasters training, “I stopped saying ‘ah’ and ‘um,’ ” she said, quickly adding, “Not to say I’ve quit completely.”

Founded in 1924, Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization based in California. It has more than 345,000 members and 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Its mission: to “empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.”

The Toastmasters program takes a learn-by-doing approach, guiding members through the basics of public speaking, while providing them with continual coaching and feedback as well as ample opportunities to get up in front of people and talk, with or without notes.

Business people can boost their careers by becoming both skilled and confident about speaking in public, which many people dread.

Every meeting has a portion dedicated to extemporaneous speaking called Table Topics. One club member has the task of coming up with an assortment of topics. Club members don’t know what their topic will be before getting up to give a short speech about it.

This exercise teaches people to think on their feet. Such experience can come in handy in business “when you’re sitting at a meeting, and the boss asks what you think about something,” said Bruce Spencer, president of Blue Diamonds Toastmasters Club, which meets in Wilkes-Barre.

“Typically you stutter and think about what your answer is going to be,” but someone experienced in Table Topics has learned to think while speaking and can respond confidently, said Spencer, who worked in sales and sales training, primarily in Wilkes-Barre, prior to retiring.

Some companies place so much value on Toastmasters training that they sponsor corporate clubs that operate exclusively for their own employees. One such club is Talk of the Rock Toastmasters, where membership is restricted to employees of Prudential Retirement in Moosic. Consequently the club meets in Prudential’s Training Room C at 30 Scranton Office Park.

“The program format helps to improve communication skills by providing an environment for members to continually practice and improve skills,” said Diane Fritz, president of Talk of the Rock Toastmasters. “The environment is friendly, supportive and enables me to gain positive feedback to help me improve my communication skills.”

A Prudential employee for 25 years, Fritz works in communications. “I started the Talk of the Rock club in 2005 with the support of our management team to provide employees with a means to improve their communication skills,” she said.

The Toastmasters program “provides a

leadership and speech project plan for skill development through (a) series of developmental projects,” Fritz said. “The process enables individuals to improve speaking habits, speech development and speech delivery.”

Fritz added, “It’s remarkable to witness a member improve from their very first speech. I’ve seen members eliminate the use of ‘double clutch’ phrases and ‘ums and ahs’ that take away from their message. Their confidence increases with every speech and every time someone steps in front of the group.”

In turn, Donnelly gave the example of a woman who joined the Electric City Toastmasters.

“One member, a mother of three, was afraid of everything,” Donnelly said. When it was her turn to address the club, “she was petrified.” But she overcame her fear of public speaking by taking part in Table Topics, by giving prepared speeches and by participating in other aspects of the Toastmasters program.

“Now she has joined an essential oils business, and she is one of their top earners,” Donnelly said. “Her whole life has changed.”

Since retiring, Bruce Spencer has become active in a number of civic organizations, one of which provides therapy for veterans. Because of his ability as a speaker, the organization has tapped him as its spokesman.

“I’m the fellow who’s going out to Rotary and other organizations to raise awareness,” Spencer said. “I wouldn’t be doing that without my Toastmasters experience.”

People for whom English is a second language often join a Toastmasters club to improve their command of English. The Electric City club, for instance, has members from Saudi Arabia, India and China. “They have language barriers,” Donnelly said. “They have come to Toastmasters to improve.”

People from other countries often don’t understand figures of speech used every day by native-born speakers. But within the setting of a Toastmasters club, the new-comers learn about American-style English, and, in turn, “we learn so much from them,” Donnelly said.

At Talk of the Rock, Fritz described the dues as “reasonable,” and Donnelly reported that members of the Electric City club pay $50 in dues twice a year, with part of the money going to the international organization.

The payments appear to pay dividends of sorts.

Before joining Toastmasters, “I had a fear of speaking in public,” Fritz said. “I found this was holding me back in my career. Toastmasters provided me the opportunities I needed to gain that confidence. Now, I am truly excited about any opportunity to speak in front of a group.”

Toastmasters International has five clubs in Northeast Pennsylvania:

• Electric City Toastmasters in Scranton;

• Talk of the Rock Toastmasters, Moosic;

• Blue Diamonds Toastmasters, Wilkes-Barre;

• Mondelez International Toastmasters, Wilkes-Barre; and

• Pocono Toastmasters, Stroudsburg.