What’s 80 years old, caters to persons of both genders and all walks of life, and serves to help people improve their speaking skills? One answer: the American Toastmasters Society!

Both Yale and New Haven have branches of the national public speaking club. Members must pay a flat fee upon entrance into the club, and dues are collected every six months. According to Greater New Haven Toastmasters Club Public Relations Vice President Laura Vasu, some members may reach their public speaking goals in the first six months and decide to quit, but many Toastmasters remain for any number of additional six-month cycles. The New Haven club meets twice a month for two hours, while the Yale club meets weekly for an hour. During the meetings, members deliver prepared speeches to the group and practice speaking impromptu on previously unannounced topics. Group members receive evaluations from their peers. New Haven’s club is nearly six years old, while Yale’s is three years old.

Between 16 and 20 people belong to the New Haven Club, and they come from diverse cultural backgrounds. People join the club for different reasons, Vasu said, including wanting to improve their English, to improve oratorical skills in high-pressure situations like professional presentations, and, most generally, to overcome a fear of public speaking. Because of these varying motivations, participants’ familiarity and comfort level with the art of speech-making vary greatly.

Most members hear about the club by word of mouth, Vasu said. Many then go to the national Toastmasters Web site to learn more about local clubs. To achieve visibility, local Toastmasters officers post flyers and submit meeting dates to calendars of events.

“We’re always looking for new members,” Vasu said. “New people are really what make it exciting.”

Members thrive on the open environment; guests are welcome at all meetings, and dues-paying Toastmasters are never forced to deliver a speech if they feel uncomfortable. But members’ overwhelming willingness to do so marks the success of the program.

“It’s always wonderful when we have a new member and he or she gives that first speech. It’s a great reference point, and [later] you see how much they’ve grown,” Vasu said.

But while “breakthrough moments” like these are just all in a day’s work at New Haven’s Toastmasters Club, the group has some room to grow itself. Members are currently working on a Web page for the chapter to generate greater publicity and disseminate information more efficiently. Yale’s chapter already has a Web page.

Bi-monthly meetings of the Greater New Haven Toastmasters generally follow a format developed and followed by Toastmasters clubs across America. Each member gets a chance to run the meeting, which Vasu said further helps members to become comfortable in front of an audience. Meetings normally follow a generic schedule. Formalized opening remarks precede an impromptu “table topics” competition, in which members are called upon to speak for a few minutes on highly informal, often random topics. After a short break, members take turns delivering prepared speeches. Following an in-depth peer evaluation session, members vote to determine the night’s best impromptu speaker, prepared speech, and even most thorough evaluator.

“The awards section really helps recognize members for their accomplishments and motivate them to keep going,” Vasu said.

The Yale Toastmasters Club meets every Friday at the 221 Whitney Ave. The Greater New Haven Toastmasters Club meets the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month in the Bass Center at 260 Whitney Ave. Guests are welcome at all meetings.

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