MJ ENTRY: A Toast to Courage: Inside a Toastmasters Meeting

By David Deen
OTTAWA - Upon the announcement of his name and a smattering of applause, James Xu makes his way to the podium. The eyes of his fellow members are fixated on his every move. This is his sixth speech at Toastmasters and his task: vocal variety, speaking with a range of volume and pace. His hand gestures only pause to wipe his sweaty palms on his shorts. After five minutes of speaking, the timer lights flash and he wraps up hastily, retreating to his seat.

James Xu signed up for this. “I just graduated from the University of Waterloo,” he says, “I want to improve my public speaking”. It is a goal shared by his fellow Toastmasters, like Laural Harris. “I liked being alone when I was young,” she recalls. “If I was in a room of people I was overlooked, and I wanted to be overlooked.” Her bright orange curly hair, large hoop earrings, and vivid blue shirt are of someone no longer deflecting attention. Though when she stood to address the club, her speech was riddled with nervous giggles, shifty eyes and a tense smile.

James Xu and Laural Harris are members of the Bytown Toastmasters Club, located in the residential Alta Vista neighbourhood south of Ottawa, and one of more than 70 clubs in the Ottawa area. Members are of many ages and diverse backgrounds. This particular group has newcomers to Canada, students and seniors. All of them aspire to benefit from the Toastmasters goal to boost confidence and improve public speaking.

Toastmasters began 90 years ago in California, but now is in 126 countries. There are currently 313,000 members among 14,650 clubs worldwide.

Tucked in a corner second-floor room of Heron Community Centre, the Bytown Toastmasters Club meets Wednesday evenings. For 90 minutes they go through protocols and speeches, following a meticulously detailed agenda and overseen by the timer. Other tasks include: grammarian, quizmaster and “ah” counter, counting words like “um” and “er”, and other unnatural breaks in speech. Everyone is an evaluator, providing anonymous voting and comments after each speaker.

The pressure for smooth speech makes for an air thick with awkwardness and nervousness. Yet once the meeting is adjourned, the mood becomes more jovial and accomplished. At the Bytown Toastmasters Club, when the gavel was hit to close the meeting, members stood up smiling, shaking hands, congratulating each other on another successful meting.