Raise a Toast

August 21, 2013

Seated left to right are Toastmasters Melissa

Raskin, Sherrie Torrey and Juleen Weber

Encountering a slithering snake during a barefoot backyard walk.

Traveling into a storm on a crowded, turbulent flight.

Delivering a speech to curious colleagues.

For many people, these items would top their not-to-do list.

All three of these situations fill most people with some degree of fear, up to and including abject terror.

But only the third fear could have tangible impacts on personal interactions and possibly hamper careers. Delivering a clear, concise speech can improve the effectiveness of the project under discussion. A successful communicator can also move more quickly up the steps of the career ladder.

With this in mind, employees at Gateway Park have started a Toastmasters chapter for employees. Toastmasters is an international organization with 280,000 members. Participants meet weekly to improve their speaking and leadership skills through practice and by receiving feedback from each other.

This won’t be the first Toastmasters on campus. Students at WPI formed an on-campus chapter in 2007 to help students, faculty, and staff master the art of giving presentations and speeches, successfully navigating through interviews, and learning to think more quickly on their feet. Although faculty and staff are welcome to join the student-run chapter and provide welcome and valuable insight, the meetings are held in the evenings, which may not be as practical for employees.

The soon-to-be formed chapter will meet during the workday. Annual dues are $72. An introductory meeting will be held at noon, Sept. 12, at BETC, Gateway 2, 50 Prescott St., second floor.

Helping start a Toastmasters group is not a new experience for Sherrie Torrey, marketing manager, Web, for Corporate and Professional Education.

At two previous jobs, she has been among the founding members for Toastmasters chapters. When her WPI colleagues expressed interest, she jumped right in to help organize a chapter.

For employees, she said, Toastmasters can help hone critical speaking skills and ease fears of public presentations. But the meetings do more than ease the anxiety of public speaking. They also help boost general communication skills, which can be vital to employees in a department that works with sales and marketing, as Torrey’s does.

Toastmasters can even work with such basics as how someone is perceived while talking on the phone. “You may not realize how the message is coming across,” she says.

Membership in Toastmasters also provides an opportunity to network, Torrey says. Employees at Gateway Park can “feel a little disconnected’’ from colleagues at the main campus, but seeing them at meetings could forge a bond. By meeting more people, chapter members develop different ways to collaborate. And the connection forged among Toastmaster members can make a real difference. “Toasties help each other out,’’ she says with a smile.

At the first meeting, Toastmasters will send district representatives to run the gathering and explain the process. “There’s a lot of structure,’’ she says.

Meetings, which last an hour and have a specific organization, run in levels. Members start by making an “icebreaker’’ speech; that is a tradition among all Toastmasters groups.

Assignments from there may vary. Members may make a humorous speech, give a talk that requires research, or share a personal story. Fellow members take on leadership roles within the gathering that keep the meeting going..

Each club has a president; vice president of membership, who recruits new members; vice president of public relations, who works with the media; and vice president of education, who keeps track of how members are progressing through the process. It also has a sergeant at arms, who secures meeting space and set-up; a secretary, who keeps track of attendance; and a treasurer, who handles the money.

Learning to give and accept feedback is critical to Toastmasters, Torrey says. “Everybody wants to ‘yes’ everybody to death—but nobody grows that way.”

Beth Mulvey, who coordinates staff training at WPI, is eager for the group to start. “I thought it would be a great way for people to strengthen their presentation skills at their workplace,’’ she says.

Account specialist Juleen Weber says her job review inspired her involvement. She was encouraged to make more presentations to management. “I’ve always struggled with that,’’ she admits. Her colleague Melissa Raskin hopes to improve her speaking and leadership skills.

The group will meet weekly, although Torrey said that even a monthly check-in can make a difference.

“It’s a short time each week to improve these really necessary skills,’’ says Raskin.

For more information about the new chapter, email storrey@wpi.edu. The student chapter can be reached at toastmasters-officers@wpi.edu.

By Sandy Quadros Bowles