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.")
"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."
As an Air Force brat growing up in Chicago, Ed Tate stuttered, hung out in his room reading magazines aloud to a mirror, tried to fit in, and finally became a successful DJ at business school. Offered several radio gigs at graduation, he chose a job with IBM instead and spent the next fifteen years in PC sales for various computer companies.
"That was my identity," he recalls. "I was a national executive working with large customers. I was a deal-maker. I was significant, in my own opinion, because I was holding up the economy. I was the only black guy who had got that far in my company. I cracked six figures, put money down on a big house, spent one night in it, and went to California for a meeting."
That night, in a hotel bedroom, he was awakened by the 1994 earthquake -- "Six point four on the Richter scale," he recalls. "I reached under the bed, grabbed my Johnston & Murphy wingtip shoe and started waving it around. The room was moving. Outside, the swimming pool was sloshing. I ran out into the hall in a T-shirt and boxer shorts. Stylish ones, luckily. Then I sat in the lobby for seven hours thinking: Life at its longest is very short. Right before leaving, I had yelled at my son for not cleaning his room. I couldn't stop regretting that. I was never the same."
Change came first to his career. "Back at the office, it occurred to me that what all of us did for a living was cover our asses," he remembers. "I became a problem because I didn't give a damn. After a while, my boss said, 'I'm going to do everything I can to get rid of you.' Eventually, he did."
This left Tate unemployed and so depressed that his wife suggested -- and then carried out -- a temporary separation. Months, traditional therapy and various jobs went by. His mother died of breast cancer.
"And then," he says, with exquisite timing, "my sister sent me a book called Speak and Grow Rich."
Long story short, as Tate likes to say, he drew on the radio experience of his distant past and exhumed his long-buried hammy instincts. He joined the Colorado Speakers Association, immersed himself in tapes and books, and signed up with the Cherry Creek Toastmasters, hoping to become an officially public speaker.
"I had found my tribe," he says. "I had found my gift. It's simple: I can talk."
Over the next few years, Tate eased himself out of the computer industry, went on tour for Careertrack -- the Boulder corporate-training conglomerate -- and eventually started his own speaker's bureau, featuring just one speaker: Ed Tate. On one job, he trained customer-service reps at Tele-Communications Inc., the then-beleaguered cable company.
"All the calls they got were people complaining, because their service was just awful," he remembers. "I had to show these people who answered the phone how to just keep the customer on the phone until something good happened. I did that in two-hour shifts, eight hours a day, in cities all over the United States, and I loved it."
Tate is now hired to discuss "strengthening the mindset," "not letting yourself be paralyzed by fear" and "two kinds of power: authentic and creative," among other topics. His audiences are corporate small- and medium-shots, all hoping to become big-. Tate fits into this business world effortlessly, dressing immaculately and always saying "behind" when he means "ass."
"But he's not Tony Robbins," Sean Sullivan insists. "With him, it's not a script. I call Merrill Lynch and I say hire this guy. Have your guys sit down with him at dinner. Have him take your sales force out to lunch and tell them stuff about people, how to connect with them. Use the guy, I say."
In his prize-winning speech at the 2000 International Toastmasters convention, Tate described a tough day at Denver International Airport: a canceled flight, a surly customer, a frazzled airline rep, his Everyman frustrations, close calls with the loss of his own temper, his struggle, and then triumph as the airline not only gets him on a flight, but bumps him up to first class! His performance was believable, funny and somehow inspirational -- even if all the message boiled down to was you might as well be nice.
"There was a guy there from Sydney, Australia, who invited me to the Olympic Games," Tate says. "I got to take my son to the Olympics. It was truly one of those life-altering moments."
Some of his speaker friends have left Toastmasters behind, insisting the club is for amateurs. But Ed Tate disagrees. "I need them," he says. "I don't even remember what I talked about in Australia. I was giddy. But I know what I'm doing. I probably did okay."
Toastmasters are used to being in the hot seat. In fact, that's the group's name for the seven-minute surprise speech sprung on an unsuspecting member at every meeting. At today's meeting, the job falls to Randall Shelton, who, fittingly, founded Cherry Creek Toastmasters in 1962.
"And it's maybe a little different," he says, "in that I have an aversion to Robert's Rules of Order."
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It's also a little different because while Toastmasters is a spry octogenarian, the Cherry Creek chapter is experiencing a youthful resurgence. Members, who include an Orthodox Jewish man and a former rock musician, range in age from twenty to eighty, with an even number of men and women.
Shelton's off-the-cuff speech to them begins with a statistic.
"This is one of the top clubs in the world," he begins. "I say that because it's true. And here, we are all warriors. Public speaking is the major fear. And fear is the thing which denies anybody from doing what they want to do. That's why Toastmasters is a celebration."
What's not to celebrate? It's the word of the day.