In Albany on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stood at a podium, presenting his annual budget address. He could see the crowd of people gathered in front of him, but thousands more watched his speech online or on TV. Millions more read about his address the next day.
At any rate, the governor's audience was massive. He had to speak for an hour in front of a larger crowd than most will ever stare down.
The governor spoke swiftly and accurately, but many others out of the public spotlight stumble through sentences daily, forgetting where they started and failing to make a point.
Chautauqua Talks Toastmasters organizer Bethany Robson, center, draws a quote from a box held by Grace Sam. Robson and her fellow Chautauqua Talks members provide impromptu, two-minute speeches at each meeting based on quotes they draw.
P-J photos by Scott Shelters
Robson leads a discussion during the Chautauqua Talks meeting on Tuesday. Meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month in the Willow Bay Commerce Center.
That's where Bethany Robson, Chautauqua Talks organizer, thinks Toastmasters helps.
"The ability to think clearly while talking is important," Robson said. "A lot of people try to figure out their thoughts before they speak, and that's time consuming. Sometimes we don't get around to speaking because we're too busy thinking. The ability to think and speak more quickly in an organized way is an essential skill. Whether you're dealing with a boss or a customer, you have to be sharp about making your point."
A few hundred miles southwest of the governor on Tuesday, Chautauqua Talks, the local Toastmasters club, gathered on the second floor of Jamestown's Willow Bay Commerce Center for some public speaking of their own. Some of the eight attendees hoped to gain confidence; others attended because of their competitive nature.
IN THE CLUB
Chautauqua Talks meets on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. Led by a generally laid-back, supportive atmosphere, the club focuses on helping everyday people perform well in everyday situations.
Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organization, teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Jamestown has hosted Chautauqua Talks since early 2010. In prior years, Jamestown-area residents traveled to Fredonia if they wished to partake in a Toastmasters group.
Robson started Tuesday's meeting at the usual time of 6:30, leading attendees into introductions. Newcomers and longtime members shared brief personal stories and their affiliations with Toastmasters.
Grace Sam joined Toastmasters after hearing an ad on the radio while driving her tractor-trailer. She thought joining a club could help improve her confidence. Nearly four years later, she's still at it.
Kate Ebersole's competitiveness led her to join. She and Sam have tested their public-speaking skills against their peers and at area competitions.
Ned Lindstrom had a couple of jobs that involved talking in front of groups. Joining Chautauqua Talks in October allowed him to do something he loves while extending his comfort zone.
"I enjoy talking, but just as much, I enjoy having people listen when I talk," said Lindstrom, who is working toward a master's degree in mental-health counseling. "I always have to relate to people in new and different ways."
A typical Chautauqua Talks meeting involves several routines, including an invocation, a prepared speech, impromptu speaking and evaluations.
Lindstrom handled the invocation during the most recent meeting, reading an excerpt from a C.S. Lewis work. Fellow meeting attendees greeted him with applause prior to and following the invocation.
Sam, the evening's "table topics master," then introduced Ebersole, who provided a seven-minute prepared speech.
Ebersole asked questions of her audience, making eye contact and providing facts and figures. She had memorized every word of the self-created, call-to-action speech. Ebersole, who has twice represented Chautauqua Talks at the area public-speaking competition, practices for the meetings while driving, timing each run-through and working to master every portion of every speech.
"You start looking at every single thing you say," she said. "You really end up crafting a speech that every word relates to your point."
The audience provided both Sam and Ebersole with rounds of applause and positive comments. Robson believes in placing an emphasis on positive feedback, reducing criticism and advice.
"I think the opportunity to practice where you know your audience is explicitly supportive and encouraging made a big difference in my confidence," she said.
SPEAKING ON THE FLY
During each Chautauqua Talks meeting, each attendee takes a try at a two-minute, impromptu speech. On Tuesday, members and guests drew quotes from a box, taking turns reading the sentences and providing off-the-cuff addresses as a part of the weekly "table topics" segment.
Robson drew a Steven Newman quote. "My rise to fame went unnoticed," she read aloud, returning the quote to the box. "My first thought is, 'Who the heck is Steven Newman?' He's right; no one noticed."
From there, Robson dove into her off-the-cuff speech. The light-hearted nature and joking persisted throughout the Toastmasters meeting between the friends and strangers.
"Toastmasters isn't a course; there's just guidelines," said former member Nick Smith, who attended Tuesday night's meeting. "It has a fraternal aspect to it; it's a great way to meet people."
Worldwide, Toastmasters has more than 270,000 members in more than 13,000 clubs.
Robson provided advice between each segment of the meeting, but Sam handled the evaluation of Ebersole's call-to-action address. During each meeting, one club member gives the primary address and someone else volunteers to handle the evaluation.
"Evaluation is what we use as a routine part of our learning: giving and receiving feedback," Robson said. "Evaluation is a presentation in itself."
Evaluations are presented to help members refine their speeches, but they also serve another purpose. The public speakers can compete on how well they evaluate their peers within the club and at area and international Toastmasters competitions.
After members and guests provided feedback on the meeting, the evening ended with yet another round of applause. Members volunteered for the different roles needed for the Feb. 7 meeting. A couple of those in attendance will compete against each other to see who will represent Chautauqua Talks at the area public-speaking contest.
HOW TO JOIN
Those interested in joining Chautauqua Talks can call Robson at 499-4817 or visit chautauquatalks.freetoasthost.org or toastmasters.org for more information. The Willow Bay Community Center is located at 23 E. Third St. in Jamestown.
The fee for new members is $65 for six months. Following the initial half-year, each subsequent membership payment is $45 for six months.
In addition to the Feb. 7 meeting, Chautauqua Talks will meet again on Feb. 21. Schools, businesses or other groups can partake in Speech Craft, a one- to two-month Toastmasters experience at a reduced price.
Area residents who would like to get their feet wet in the public speaking world before lightening their wallets can check out an upcoming meeting.
"It's like a free sample; it's necessary for people to find out about Toastmasters since it's new to this area," Robson said. "A lot of people aren't familiar with Toastmasters. It's not really clear to people what Toastmasters is until they come try it. It's fun; it's exhilarating. It's facing a challenge that's scary but then feeling great after it's over."