Speak for Yourself

Warming up to Toastmasters -- and icing out unnecessary verbiage.

At this 7 a.m. meeting of the Cherry Creek Toastmasters, Topicmaster Susan Grattino throws out questions loosely related to Mother's Day. In return, she expects an extemporaneous speech, no longer or shorter than 45 seconds.

"There was an old woman who lived in a shoe," she says. "How is that possible?"

"It isn't," replies the man she's selected at random to answer. "Women love shoes too much to live in just one of them." But either his wife or mother could be happy in some kind of multi-shoe condo, he speculates, and that's why he celebrates his female kin, even as he fights through the piles of shoes they leave in the hallway. (Note the slick use of the Word of the Day: "celebrate.")

That championship season: Ed Tate's turned pro, but he hasn't forgotten where he got his start.
James Bludworth
That championship season: Ed Tate's turned pro, but he hasn't forgotten where he got his start.

"When was the last time you said, 'I want my mommy?'" Grattino continues, on to her next victim.

"This morning," the man answers. It was a tough morning, and he explains why, in a perfectly organized statement, featuring beginning, middle and end -- and lasting exactly 45 seconds.

Toastmasters International, which itself has lasted 84 years (and counting), now has 8,700 chapters in seventy countries. The organization's stated goal is to help people conquer their fear of public speaking through a self-paced program of topics and techniques, preparing them to give the appropriate speech whenever they're ready -- at which time they get positively couched feedback from their fellow Toastmasters. With Toastmaster training, the theory goes, there's no end to how far your newfound ability to speak in public will take your business career.

But it may be their ability to stop talking that makes Toastmasters so popular in their fields of business. By going through the club's formal steps, they learn to be entertaining at all costs, and to stop on time, no matter what. The Cherry Creek chapter is on a particular mission to eradicate such verbal tics as you know and um, uh, you know?, as well as the cliches that clog the public-speaking pipeline: now it is my pleasure to hand over the microphone; at this time we would like to welcome...; I just flew in from Miami.

This quickly becomes clear as Sean Sullivan, a technology salesman and six-month veteran of Toastmasters, begins a potentially deadly speech titled "The Lost Art of Selling."

"I'm 31 years old," he says, in a voice heavy on Long Island accent and evangelistic fire. "Technically, a snot-nosed kid. But I have four words of wisdom for you: shut the hell up. Be personable. Be nice. Get back to people. There are 10,000 pay phones in Denver. Return your calls!"

Sullivan is voted Speaker of the Day, despite competition from "Help! There's a Carp in My Bathtub," a deconstruction of gefilte fish, and a fable about the friendship between a sled dog and a polar bear.

"My boss suggested I join," Sullivan says later. "I'm insecure. Sometimes I won't say anything for fear of saying something stupid."

Sullivan comes by his insecurity logically: A highly paid New York stockbroker, he recently made a clean break from his overbearing family and moved to Colorado, where he started out all over again on $25,000 a year. "This is the fun part," he tells himself a bit nervously. "I have a good wife and a new baby and a new life. Not like it's some big sob story, but it's a big change."

There's an air of the nearly saved to Sullivan, just as there is to the woman who used to cry at the mere idea of speaking in public, or the older woman with the snaggle teeth and valiantly controlled stutter who attends when she's not "having money troubles." (Toastmasters pay $16 for each six-month period of membership.) And during the Brief Inspirational Message in Parting that traditionally ends the meeting, club president Michael O'Rourke is blindsided by emotion. Without getting into it, he says, Mother's Day is important to him because his own mother brought him into this world twice -- by giving him birth and by saving his life fifteen years ago. It's a private story, but that doesn't prevent a few tears in public. Still, O'Rourke recovers quickly, as a good speaker should.

"Well, he's a regular guy," Sean Sullivan explains. "And that's what you want up there -- a regular guy who regular things happen to, but who somehow makes it into a success story. And if you want the real success story, talk to Ed Tate."

As the 2000 International World Champion of Public Speaking, Ed Tate is the Cherry Creek Toastmasters' best-known export. On the way to winning his title, he built a career as a corporate trainer, and he now travels constantly. This morning, just back from Canada, he's at his home club. Over the course of the ninety-minute meeting, he counts votes, rings a silver bell whenever he hears an "um," gamely samples a bite of gefilte fish (followed by a breath mint) and catches up with his Toastmasters buddies. But in this world of amateur speakers, Tate's a pro -- which makes him royalty.

"It was just plain luck," he says. "Quite frankly, I was insecure a lot of my life."

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