Speak up! Toastmasters are listening

By Mara Rockliff

Bored with skydiving into the Andes without a compass– or a parachute? Already tried rappelling down a sheer rock face using only dental floss for rope? Thrill seekers, check out the ultimate extreme sport, guaranteed to leave you with a racing heart and sweaty palms: speaking in front of a group.
“When people say, ‘I’d rather die than make a speech,’” says Jonathan Sjørdal of the Blue Ridge Toastmasters, “they’re telling the truth. Public speaking is the number one fear, even ahead of death.”
Since the mid-1960s, Charlottesville’s bravest souls have met each week to face down their terror and sharpen their presentation skills. “Because they’re scared,” Sjørdal says, “people talk about what they know best.” Examples: traffic safety, juggling, voter registration, night-time snail-collecting (no, seriously).
Blue Ridge Toastmasters, which meets at 7pm every Tuesday at the Northside Library, is one of 8,000 clubs affiliated with Toastmasters International (toastmasters.org). “There’s a Toastmasters club on every continent and in every country,” says Sjørdal. “They opened one in Antarctica last year.”
Charlottesville actually boasts five Toastmasters clubs in addition to Blue Ridge Toastmasters. Four are workplace groups, where corporate employees meet at lunchtime. The fifth, Vinegar Hill Toastmasters, meets Fridays at noon in the Albemarle County Office Building at 401 McIntire Road, and is also open to new members.
Why so many? Size matters, says Sjørdal. “Most clubs have 20 to 30 people,” he explains. “Beyond that, we encourage groups to splinter off. A club should be big enough to have an audience, but small enough so everyone can participate. You couldn’t do that with 40 people.”
Speeches may be either prepared or impromptu. And every speech gets an evaluation from a fellow member of the group, to help speakers learn to express themselves more effectively. Says Sjørdal, “They’re pretty compassionate.”
Compassionate, maybe. Noncompetitive, no. At every meeting, speakers vie to be voted best in several categories. Winners keep their trophies until next week’s meeting– not much time for snoozing comfortably on their laurels.
“First-time visitors are not called upon to speak,” Sjørdal says reassuringly, but adds: “If they want to be included, they can. We had a guy walk in off the street and win best speaker for the evening.”
Visitors don’t have to pay dues, either ($33 for six months, split between the local and the international group; it pays for trophies, educational materials, etc.). So come on out. You have nothing to lose but your performance anxiety.

Speak your piece– or just listen and learn– at the weekly meeting of the Blue Ridge Toastmasters club. Northside Library, 300 Albemarle Square, Tuesdays at 7pm. Free and open to the public. For more information, contact Jonathan Sjørdal at 985-4939 or email sjordal@juno.com.

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