For students tired of playing second fiddle to articulate, well-versed English majors who dominate discussion in weekly sections, the Yale Toastmasters Club may have a solution.
The club is a chapter of an international organization founded to improve skills in public speaking, communications and leadership. The dozen or so club members meet each Friday for an hour to hone their speaking abilities in what they consider a supportive, non-threatening environment.
“We are a club that focuses on no ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ — filler words that we count in evaluating speakers — with the goal of helping each speaker improve their ability to communicate,” said Club President Roberta Bartek, a Yale financial aid counselor.
Because it is open to faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, as well as members of the New Haven community, there is a wide range of interests present. Similarly, the skill levels of members are also varied, with both elementary and advanced speakers.
“People at Yale are much like a cross-section of any other large organization: there are some good speakers here, but many people recognize a need for self-improvement, and many people also want to overcome a fear of public speaking,” said Bob Saidi, the club’s vice-president of public relations, who works for University Facilities.
At the weekly meetings, the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, as most members are friends with each other. The meetings normally include time for three prepared speeches, a session of short impromptu responses to questions called “Table Topics,” and evaluations designed to give helpful and supportive feedback on members’ performances.
Constructing the meetings this way allows the Toastmasters to address the different aspects of public speaking, which the members believe is not simply limited to giving a prepared speech.
“In looking for a permanent job, oral skills are very important,” said new member Jason Lu, a post-doctorate student in biology. “My motivation is to learn public speaking and improve my presentation skills, as well as to make lots of friends.”
Members of the club also have the opportunity to practice any personal presentations and speeches that they will have to deliver, and gain valuable feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to improve. In advanced programs, members work on more specific skills, such as defending positions with which they personally disagree, and telling jokes and entertaining stories.
The club also seeks to build leadership at different levels, as members assume different roles each meeting. Those new to the club have ample opportunity to observe the more advanced roles of moderator and evaluator before taking these positions on themselves. Members said the many skills taught to members, and the ability to practice them until mastered, give them greater faith in their abilities.
“Toastmasters gives a person confidence enough to let go of the podium,” said Patricia Thurston, the club’s vice-president of education and a Yale librarian.