Toastmasters

A curious girl’s ethnographic quest for stimulation, knowledge and the least common denominator…
(originally published on Austinist.com)

I walked in and took a seat at the table. 5:59 p.m.

A smallish man in a short-sleeved plaid shirt stood behind the podium. He smacked the gavel on the table and called the meeting to order. I looked at my phone. Six o’clock on the dot.

“Let’s begin with introductions,” he told us. “State your name and your official role in today’s meeting.”

He started things off. “My name is [Frank], and I’m the Vice President of Education for our chapter,” he said. His manner oscillated between at ease and in the midst of a root canal. This must have been acceptable, because everyone clapped.

Next, a tall man with big arms stood up. He told us his name and said he’d be evaluating one of today’s speeches. He seemed a little nervous, but once again everyone clapped.

The girl on his right introduced herself. “I’m today’s Word Master,” she said. “The word for this meeting isarcane. Arcane means difficult to understand, mysterious, knowable only to the initiate.” She pointed to where she had written the word on the wipe board; the applause was deafening.

Around the room we continued. A Timekeeper. A Grammarian. Another Evaluator. An Uh Counter (holy shit, really?). Two women were going to give speeches. One man was in charge of something called Table Topics, which I hoped did not involve the people sitting at the table

Each three to five second introduction was followed by seven to ten seconds of applause. Kind of inefficient, but who was counting, really?

Other than the official Timekeeper.

And me.

6:04.

With all of this standing and introducing and role-describing and applauding happening like clockwork, the irony of the Word of the Day was not lost on me. So I’ll be nice and give you something I was not privy to: an explanation.

I’d figured it was time to take a break from the spiritual world and to try something practical for a change. And what, I ask, could be more practical than improving my oral communication skills? That’s right. It was time for Toastmasters. Basically, Toastmasters is a non-profit organization that, according to the official website, offers a proven – and enjoyable! – way to practice and hone communication and leadership skills. Also on the website, I found this less enjoyable quote in big, bold italics:

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubts.
                                                                                  -Benedict J. Goltra

This should have tipped me off, but it didn’t.

On the drive to the meeting, I was feeling pretty cocky about my public speaking skills. In fact, I was actually plotting how to fake my nervousness so the members wouldn’t be suspicious. I mean, I was once the leader of a band. It’s not like we were famous or anything, but I’ve played in front of lots of people. I’ve bantered. I’ve told really stupid jokes and not thought twice about it.

On stage, however, I was always hidden safely behind my guitar- and, as any adolescent boy can tell you, a guitar is a magical thing. It gives confidence where none is deserved. It makes crackly-voiced, pimply little boys sexy, and it makes the already-sexy, well, God-like.

Unfortunately I’d failed to consider that there are no guitars in Toastmasters; also, there are no gavels in Rock. Having overlooked these two factors, I was surprised by my nervousness when the VP of Ed pointed his gavel at me.

Really? Me? I’m, like, just visiting. Seriously? I have to do this?

I sort of half stood up. The members’ smiles shined. Their eyes sparkled with attention.

“I’m Wendy,” I cracked. “I’m, um, just checking out the meeting. I don’t really know what’s happening, so… I guess I don’t really have a role… except Curious? That’s probably not official, though. Well… uh, I’m just going to sit down now.”

Uproarious applause erupted. I might have heard the beginnings of the Tomahawk Chop (Braves version, of course). Deion Sanders himself popped his head in the door just to give me a high-five (thanks, man).

Introductions continued.

The man next to me stood up. “I’ll be your Toastmaster tonight,” he told us. Everyone clapped. This wasn’t half-hearted applause either. It was complete with smiles and eye contact and everything. But he wasn’t that good. They were totally faking.

I have to admit, I was hoping for something a little more… well, Alcoholics Anonymous. You know: I’m Wendy, and I’m a really crappy public speaker [applause]. I’ve been in denial for a long time, but I admit it. I need help. I’m a write-it-down-and-let-them-read-it-when-I’m-not-in-the-room sort of person. When I try to tell a story out loud, I get confused. I get paranoid about what people are thinking. I get distracted by their faces. I get distracted by squirrels. I get distracted by trying to remember the first words to Pancho and Lefty. It’s too much to deal with (I imagine their understanding faces, their tear-filled eyes). They get me. They really get me…

Alas, we were on a schedule here.

“Now that we’ve settled our official roles for this evening, let’s quickly move on to the speech portion of the program. It’s time to welcome our Toastmaster. Timekeeper, please begin official time,” he said efficiently.

The Toastmaster approached the podium. “Thank you, Mr. Vice President,” he said. He was soft-spoken and seemed slightly nervous. Also, he could have used a taller podium. Everyone clapped, of course, as he introduced the first speaker.

“Let’s all welcome [Judith]!” he said. “She’ll be making speech number [something-or-other] from the [something-or-other] manual, focusing on the use of body language to better communicate speech. Let’s give her a warm welcome.”

[For the remainder of this story, let’s all just assume that uproarious applause occurs in conjunction with anyclosed quotation marks]

[Judith] walked to the podium and graciously thanked the Toastmaster [closed quotation marks implied].

She began her speech about Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. She was obviously a pro. I know we were supposed to be paying attention to her delivery, particularly her use of body language, but she was so fluid that I got wrapped up in the content. It was something that’s come up in every single meeting I’ve attended so far: Mindfulness.

Here’s my summary of her talking points (and yes, she successfully illustrated them with gestures, eye contact, movement and vocal dynamics):

  • The present is all we have. Let’s stop obsessing about the future, shall we?
  • Our brains are negative assholes, and they need to shut up.
  • What’s wrong with right NOW? Nothing! Right NOW is peachy.
  • This is the only way to achieve true joy, my friends. Let’s get to it!

All-in-all, she got to me. But there was no time to dwell. As the website said, “Meetings last one hour. We start on time and end on time.”

Then Toastmaster introduced the second speaker. She was a small yet feisty lady, obviously of East Coast origin. Her speech focused on the use of humor to communicate a theme. She was very motivational speaker-esque, and she drew me in immediately despite her repetitive staccato delivery: A few syllables. At a time. Over. And over. Again. Still. Her points. Sunk in. And. She was funny. I did not. Want. Her to stop.

Then it was time for something called Table Topics. I had been dreading this portion of the meeting in very non-Tolle-endorsed way. Though I had no idea what was about to happen, I figured I was at risk.

Our VP introduced tonight’s subject: Weight, Eating and Exercise.

He randomly picked a woman at the table and asked her how she felt about the statement, “Why won’t exercise make you thin?” It was a tricky one.

She stood up and walked to the podium. “I think I would revise that statement to say exercise ‘alone’ won’t make you thin…” she began with a confident smile. “It’s also important to choose the right foods to support your exercise program,” she continued as if reading from a cue card. So clever! So calm! I resisted the urge to trip her as she walked back to her seat.

The Toastmaster asked the tall man with big arms to discuss childhood obesity. His answer was kind of surreal. He started out talking about sugar and ended up with, “Would you rather have people be fat or be drunk because they’re addicted to alcohol?” Everyone… clapped…

More questions asked. More answers given. Desserts, sports, dieting…

All the while, I was chanting to myself: Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me. And just as I was flashing back to Dr. Polk’s American Architecture class, the VP pointed at me.

“Huh?” I said.

“Since we have some time, I’d like to ask our Guest to participate,” he said. “Are you ready to give it a shot?”

“Uh, sure? I guess so.”

“Well, Wendy, why don’t you tell us about your favorite food?”

“Okay, well, I-”

“Wait!” everyone interrupted. “You have to go up to the podium!”

“Oh, right,” I said, making the long walk. “So, my favorite food is, well, coffee flavored ice cream. It’s not like I drink a lot of coffee or anything, though. I do hang out in coffee places a lot. But they don’t usually have ice cream. I’m not one of those people who has to have coffee in the morning. It’s just that, like, a few years ago, I’m not sure why, but I just stopped liking chocolate. You know, like when I’m on my period? I used to want to eat chocolate. But I don’t anymore. And then I randomly started to really like coffee flavored things- but not really coffee itself. Just the flavor. Like in desserts. So now I like coffee ice cream a lot. I like peanut butter ice cream, too. Those are the only ice cream flavors I like. Um, I guess that’s all I have to say.”

I smiled. I froze. I unfroze. I froze again.

Wait. Did I just say ‘on my period’? I did. I just said ‘on my period’. At a podium. I really really really did.

And with that, applause erupted. Enthusiastically.

STATS

Gender:
5 males, 5 females

Like count:
13

Last meeting room redesign:
1981


Actual favorite food (No Pressure Edition):

garlic