Please, Just Say A Few Words

To a typical musician such as Brian Sewell, this seemingly innocuous phrase can strike terror out of all proportion. Whilst perfectly content to play his instrument in front of thousands, the prospect of making an announcement in front of 30 people or doing a radio interview made him feel ill.

Brian's own experience as a mumbling teenager developing into an incoherent, woolly-minded adult was that, while not wholly confident about playing at exalted levels (English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the like) straight out of the Royal Academy, the thought of having to speak in public would send him running for cover!

His first assignment, at the tender age of 16, was as Best Man at his brother's wedding. Only recently did he realise what a huge compliment this was but, at the time, it only served to make his already shaky performing nerves more on edge.

Over the ensuing twenty years, Brian managed to avoid introducing school concerts with wind quintets and trio recitals, content to let someone else do that which he found really difficult.

Then an old friend said "I don't suppose you'd be interested, but I've just been to a meeting of a club called Toastmasters International - they help people develop public speaking skills with prepared speeches and off-the-cuff informal topics". He didn't immediately say yes but he saw that it could help him overcome a long-standing fear of speaking to an audience. He knew that he should grasp the nettle, screw his courage to the sticking post and wade in.

The friends met in a somewhat salubrious pub and then moved upstairs to a very congenial meeting room. Brian was immediately greeted by "Hello, I'm Barry Graham, President of London Corinthians, welcome to Toastmasters". He couldn't have made Brian more welcome. Having sat at the back, the better to observe, he didn't expect to have to introduce himself, but he'd been spotted! Bringing Alcoholics Anonymous to mind, he was asked to rise and say what he hoped to get out of the experience. He must have sounded more confident than he felt and was quite pleased when everyone applauded. He had a slight fear that he'd wandered into a 'revivalist' meeting but his fears proved groundless.

Like most musicians, Brian was loath to commit himself to a regular evening's attendance but members may turn up whenever it's possible. Even if one's due to make a prepared speech it's understood that work must come first.

Of course, Toastmasters isn't just for musicians. Brian's club contains a broad spectrum of professions including law, medicine, advertising, public relations, computers, architecture, auctioning, property management, teaching and social work. In addition, housewives, self-employed, unemployed and retired people make a valuable contribution to the life of the club. Whatever your role in life the development of speaking skills can bring significant professional and social benefits.

New club members work initially through a set of 10 basic speech assignments (on any subject) which concentrate on the different aspects of public speaking - body language, structure, vocal variety, word use and, finally, an inspirational speech leading to the CTM (Competent Toastmaster) qualification.

As well as prepared speeches, members take turns to perform various functions, all of which include opportunities for speaking. These include Chairman, Timekeeper, Grammarian and Topics Master, the person who runs the impromptu speaking session of the meeting. Several of these roles also promote the development of leadership and organisational skills.

Evaluation is the cornerstone of a Toastmaster club. Each prepared speech is evaluated by an experienced Toastmaster who will comment on the structure and delivery of the speech, giving praise where due and making recommendations for improvement. Evaluations are also a speaking opportunity - each evaluator is in turn evaluated by the General Evaluator at the end of the meeting.

Good time-keeping is an essential aspect of good speaking so there is a system of timing lights which help to prevent the audience becoming bored by speeches that seem to run on forever!

During the meeting, there are popular votes for Best Topics Speaker, Best Speaker and Best Evaluator. The meeting itself is scrutinised by the General Evaluator who sums up the whole event and comments on the performance of all participants not previously evaluated. Far from being an opportunity for criticism or judgement, the whole spirit of evaluation is to provide support, encouragement and solid recommendations.

Club speeches cover a vast range of subjects. Among the best at Brian's club last year were "Hey, Hey, It's The Tax-Man", an amusing and educational piece on tax avoidance, "Swan Song", a manic musical evocation of a Toastmaster development, equating it to the progression from ugly duckling to swan. There was also an hilarious account of producing television programmes for deaf people. Included were a number of dubious gestures, given in all innocence by a person speaking but with distinct double-entendres for those who rely on sign language!

While the main objectives are the serious development of communication and leadership skills, meetings often include humour which reminds one of those management-training films made by John Cleese.

So why not give Toastmasters a try? Join and you'll find a supportive and good-natured atmosphere with all the expertise needed develop the skills of speaking before an audience.

To find out more about Toastmasters and get details of the clubs in the UK and Ireland, call the central Toastmasters number 020 7494 1105, quoting the reference "The Eileen and Brian web site".

© Brian Smith 1995, 2006

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