Emory Report
July 5, 2005
Volume 57, Number 34


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July 5, 2005
Emory's Toastmasters celebrate first year of talking to each other

BY Eric Rangus

Except for the most rabid Morning People, 8 a.m. can be a challenging time for group activity. Yet every Wednesday, bright and early, in room 231 of the Dental School, Toastmasters@Emory gathers for its weekly meeting.

For many, there is perhaps no combination more masochistic than public speaking and early-morning rising, yet Toastmasters@Emory, the campus branch of the worldwide public-speaking club is flourishing. A prime ingredient is powerfully positive thinking.

“It’s just amazing to start your morning at 8 with people applauding for you,” said Carol Froman, senior editor in the School of Medicine and one of Emory’s Toastmasters. “You’re not going to find that anywhere else.” That sort of boost is surely important, but the coffee and fresh donuts probably help, too.

Whatever the reasons, Toastmasters@Emory celebrated the first anniversary of its charter on June 15. For an hour each week, they work together in a “no-fail” atmosphere (meaning that Toastmasters is not competitive along the lines of a debate society) to improve each other’s communications skills.

“You learn technique, of course,” said Ted Pettus, a faculty member in the School of Medicine (SOM) whose chapter presidency ended with the June 21 meeting. “But one of the first things you learn is overcoming fear.”
Not that that’s easy, even for this friendly group. Encouraging speakers for “table topics,” where participants must give a two-minute impromptu speech on a subject they learn only when they stand up, is an exercise in positive peer pressure. “It’s hard to get people up there,” Pettus continued. “Everyone wants to do it, but standing up is tough.”

More than 4 million people worldwide have participated in Toastmasters since it was created in 1924. Currently there are about 190,000 Toastmasters scattered among 9,500 clubs in 78 countries. Two of those clubs are at Emory—The Carter Center has had an active club for several years—and the surrounding area has several more.

The seeds for Emory’s successful club were several years ago through the efforts of a group of students. In summer 2003 Kai Young, then a student in the Rollins School of Public Health (now a fellow at the CDC), and two others, Jim Choi and Pranay Ranjan, wanted to improve their public speaking skills, so they sought out Toastmasters. Goizueta Business School had once been home to a branch, but it had disbanded several years ago.

The trio’s search took them to Georgia Tech, where they joined the Toastmasters club there. That’s when they met Kimsey Pollard, a research engineer at Tech and a Toastmaster for some 15 years. “All Toastmasters clubs have the same format, topics, evaluations and speeches, although there is variance on how they run,” said Pollard, who regularly attends Emory’s meetings—one of several Toastmasters clubs to which he belongs.

Rarely does any of Emory’s Toastmasters leave a meeting without having contributed. Those who don’t deliver a formal speech often grade the speakers by providing constructive criticism. This takes many forms ranging from a general evaluation to a counting of “ahs” and “ums” and even the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness, as the case may be) of hand motions.

The table topics Pettus spoke of earlier give members not scheduled to speak a chance to step to the podium. One member chooses a general table topic theme, and provides some suggested speaking topics around that theme, then the speakers prepare an impromptu speech around one of those suggestions selected at random.

The theme of the day on June 21 was “hidden meanings,” but some of the table-topic speeches included fund-raising and clothing left in the sink (how the speakers managed to weave a hidden meaning into those themes show what talented presenters Emory’s Toastmasters are).

“Table topics, for instance, are vastly underrated and underappreciated and perhaps more intimidating,” Pollard said. “All day, every day, people ask you questions. Soon enough you realize you can talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything for two minutes. It’s the proverbial going to the wedding and standing around and talking to strangers.”

Pollard helped integrate the Emory trio into Tech’s Toastmaster’s club, and he was there when they struck out on their own and began meeting on the Emory campus that fall. Clubs must meet for a certain amount of time before the national organization will charter them, and that process was completed in June 2004. The club has been going strong ever since.

“We’ve all become one big, happy family,” said Young. That family numbers around 16–20, and one-half to two-thirds of the membership attend every week. Some of the members are students for whom English is a second language; Toastmasters has helped them improve their communication skills.

“It’s amazing how diverse we are,” Young said. “Although we might be dragging in there in the morning, when we get out, we’re energized and looking forward to the rest of the day.”

She hit on an important quality of the club. Perhaps more than any other organization on campus, Toastmasters@Emory encompasses the whole of the University. It boasts faculty, staff, students, administrators and members of the outside community all meeting on equal ground, learning from each other and taking those lessons with them when they meet with their peers.

“I teach; it’s my job, so I have to prepare lectures and speak all the time,” said Pettus, whose interaction with his wife Amy, a fellow Toastmaster and SOM faculty member, provides the club with a lot of its levity. “But where I have really improved is when I’m in a large meeting, raising my hand and making a comment. That wasn’t always easy with deans and other administrators around.”

Membership costs are reasonable. The dues are $16 to sign up and $18 every six months. The initial payment of $34 includes an introductory packet. Membership is open to any member of the Emory community as well as those outside it. The benefits go beyond the bill, encompassing not only personal growth but institutional development, too.

“I think there have actually been occurrences that have been helpful to the University because people have met in a setting like Toastmasters,” said Froman. “I would never meet anyone from the administration in my day-to-day activities except through Toastmasters.”