SOUTH PORTLAND — The greater Portland Toastmasters will hold an open house next week for anyone trying to develop leadership skills or to overcome fears of public speaking.
The club is one of 11,700 Toastmasters clubs in 92 countries. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1924 in Santa Ana, Calif.
The mission is simple: Give people a supportive and fun environment to overcome their fears of public speaking to become better communicators and leaders. Among the alumni are comedian and actor Tim Allen, Peter Coors of Coors Brewing Co., Mrs. Fields founder Debbie Fields and Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle.
Toastmasters has been in greater Portland for about 10 years, according to former club President Sean Baker. He said the group does not simply practice wedding toasts, as the name might suggest.
Baker said the club currently has about 13 members, who pay about $40 every six months to meet every first and third Monday in the Community Room of Landry Village, a retirement home at 51 Landry Circle, off Westbrook Street.
Members participate for several reasons, Baker said, ranging from overcoming public speaking fears to self empowerment.
“You see them come in as this shy, meek person – even though they have these big positions in their companies – but they just shrink like a flower when they get up in front of a group of people,” Baker said. “You see them grow and develop.”
Baker, the program director and local sports anchor for WLVP 870 AM, used the club to overcome his fear of public speaking.
“I’ve worked in radio for more than 20 years, but I was scared to death to get up in front of a group of people.” Baker said. “It’s a lot different when you’re standing in front of a group of people. Everybody can see your knees knock.”
The open house, which will take place Monday, Feb. 2, from 6-8 p.m. in the Community Room of Landry Village, will consist a brief meet-and-greet period. Then, attendees will be invited to stay while the Toastmasters run through a typical meeting.
At each meeting, Baker said two or three members give three- to five-minute speeches. Each speech is then evaluated on how well it adhered to pre-established rules on length and grammar. Often the group will chose a word of the day and try to include it in as many sentences as possible, or use table topics to allow participants to practice listening, thinking and speaking on their feet.
Although some members like to speak at every meeting, there are others who take a more passive approach, simply sitting back and listening. That, too, has it’s benefits, Baker said, especially if the speakers are engaging
“When you look at the fine art of public speaking, you realize what a true art it really is,” Baker said. “When you find some to engage your attention and draw you right in, then you stand back and say ‘What is it that makes this person so engaging?'”
For the more motivated speakers, Toastmasters clubs around the world offer both a spring and fall speech contest. Successful local speakers move on to district competitions, then to a national competition. The very best speakers then compete on an international stage.
Baker said he made to the district level of the competition. He said the district competition, where he was speaking in front of 300 people, was much different than speaking in front of his 12 other local club members.
Although his stage fright returned, Baker said it was still a learning experience.
“Having been through that the first time, you learn how to get over those butterflies and eventually you become more confident,” he said.
Also, Baker said Toastmasters events give members an opportunity to network with one another. Sometimes, job offers are made within the club.
“You never know who you’re going to meet,” he said. “You just never know what opportunity will come your way.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.