The fear of public speaking is said to be the world's No. 1 phobia.
One of the many victims, local resident Jill Bladh, was told by friends about a newly organized club in the city called Toastmasters. Her first response was, ''What is it, and why should I care?''
She learned that Toastmasters was the brainchild of Ralph Smedley in 1924 in Santa Ana, Calif. His goal was to help people improve their speaking skills in a supportive, informal atmosphere. The idea proved to have great appeal, and similar clubs spread in the state, the nation and internationally. Today, after 87 years, there are 13,000 clubs in 116 countries. Chautauqua Talks, the local club, was organized almost two years ago.
As Jill attended her first meetings, she became comfortable because she found others with similar problems, and a strong aura of encouragement throughout. After she joined and regularly attended the bimonthly meetings, she learned that making a speech is the end product of many other skills: organizing thoughts, speaking within a time frame and the ability to accept constructive criticism - the art of speech evaluation which requires careful listening. Eventually, after hearing other members' speeches, which are part of every meeting, Jill found that she could stand before the club and speak successfully for three to five minutes.
''Toastmasters takes the knocking out of knees!'' she says.
Members of Chautauqua Talks have joined for a variety of needs and personal and career situations. Grace Sam, whose ladylike, attractive appearance belies the fact that she drives a semi tractor-trailer for a living and is hearing impaired, says that Toastmasters has given her the confidence and skill to better handle everyday situations such as dealing with medical issues and discussing facts and figures necessary when purchasing a car.
Other members seek career improvement. T.J. Delpozzo, an investment adviser, has overcome shyness to speak with clarity and conviction in client conversations. Kim Sherwood, a professional hydrologist, was already a comfortable speaker. However, he learned to prepare presentations that were both succinct and meaningful to boards and agencies. Bethany Robson, a personal counselor and an organizer of the club, could speak comfortably to individual clients. Toastmasters' activities have enabled her to speak before larger groups and to be a leader in the successful operation of the organization. She often assures shaky members, ''When we practice in front of our club, we get all kinds of positive feedback and encouragement.''
There are members of Chautauqua Talks who enjoy the challenge of competitive speaking. Local contests are held during the club meetings and the members vote for the winners. Speeches of three to five minutes usually deal with light topics: humor or whimsy.
Longer speeches (five to seven minutes) must be of an inspirational nature. The speeches and their presentations follow a rigorous format and are strictly timed. In its short life, Chautauqua Talks has sent club winners - Grace Sam, Kate Ebersole (twice), Kim Sherwood and Joshua Letterman - to the next level, the area contest. Kate was also a winner there and participated in the even more competitive district contest.
In the past several months the local club has developed a community outreach in workshops called ''Speak for Success.'' Karen L. Colaiacovo, the disability resource coordinator for Chautauqua Works, speaks of a client who, by learning to organize ideas into coherent discourse, was able to communicate with increased self-assurance.
''This workshop incorporates a number of skills that our participants need for success in the workforce,'' she said.
Chautauqua Talks will provide further information about this proven path toward more effective communication to visitors, who are always welcome at the regular meetings. Meetings take place at 6:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month in the Chautauqua Works classroom on the second floor of the Willow Bay Community Center, 23 E. Third St. in Jamestown.
For more information, visit www.toastmasters.org or chautauquatalks.freetoasthost.org, or call Bethany Robson at 499-4817.