By STEVEN NALLEY
In a Toastmasters public speaking competition in Columbus about a month ago, Robbie Ward gave a speech called “Mama’s Favorite Souvenirs.” Even though it was a “serious speech” competition, he began the speech with a fairly lighthearted memory from his childhood: a lime green and faded yellow foam toy lizard that Ward called “Leroy” and treated like a pet.
“Sadly, ‘Leroy’ fell apart after a few weeks,” Ward said. “While Leroy is gone, when I have a hard time in my life, in my heart, I still take him for a walk.”
Then he paused, looking down at his clasped hands. It wasn’t because he was nervous. It wasn’t because he had trouble remembering what the next part of his speech was without notes; he remembered it only too well. He paused because what came next would be hard for anyone to say:
“Last year, my mother passed away after a struggle with muscular dystrophy.”
Public speaking is far from the hardest thing Ward has endured, but once, it was hard for him all the same. At the Starkville Downtown Toastmasters Club, he found his voice and a group of people who could help him make it stronger.
The club is a branch of Toastmasters International, which helps people develop skills not only in speaking, but also in leadership. The program assigns members speeches or leadership projects of increasing complexity, allowing them to earn levels of distinction ranging from Competent Communicator to Distinguished Toastmaster.
Angela Clinton, president of Mississippi State University’s own Bulldog Toastmasters, said she originally joined just to overcome a fear of speaking in public, but she stayed to build her leadership skills.
“On the leadership scale, I’ve been able to hone my time management, book keeping, understanding of group dynamics and supervisory skills,” Clinton said. “The most amazing results I’ve seen from other members includes greater self-confidence and assurance. Some of the members had made it to the graduate level and had never spoken in front of a crowd. Those individuals are now not only speaking, but they are holding offices and confident enough to conduct self-directed meetings.”
More than 12,500 Toastmasters clubs meet in 113 countries, with more than 260,000 members worldwide. The Starkville Downtown Toastmasters meet every other Thursday at 7 a.m. at the Comfort Suites at the intersection of Highway 12 and Russell Street.
“Public speaking ranks higher than the fear of death,” Ward said. “Speaking in public is already kind of a scary thing already, so Toastmasters is a place where they can learn ways to improve their ability to speak in public.”
As a young adult, Ward said, he had grown up with a deep fear of public speaking, one that haunted him when he served in youth Congress in high school.
“I had to stand in the Senate chambers and read my bill that I wrote,” Ward said. “I had all these people staring at me, and it made me terrified. It was a real fear that I had. I’ve always remembered that feeling.”
Ward said he is now as comfortable speaking in front of a thousand people as he is in front of a handful of people. Since joining Toastmasters, he said, he has given 70 to 80 different speeches to Toastmasters and other organizations.
Clinton said one of the Toastmasters exercises that helped her most was “Table Topics,” where everyone at the meeting gets to discuss a topic instead of listening to one member give a speech.
“I’ve personally seen advancements in my impromptu speaking skills, humor levels, my debate skills and conflict resolution skills,” Clinton said. “I’ve learned to be more consistent in my delivery and more assertive in my demeanor, skills which have helped me in many other facets of life.”
Ward said it helps that the handful of people in each Toastmasters club serve as an easy audience to give speeches to.
“It’s a very supportive atmosphere that also provides productive feedback on how to improve,” Ward said. “The group creates an atmosphere. Everyone there wants to improve their public speaking, and they also want others around them to improve. You have a group that’s very attentive when someone speaks.”
With the Toastmasters method, Ward said, members give speeches to the club as a whole, then one of the others gives the speaker a constructive evaluation. He said club veterans mentor new members to help them work through their first speeches.
“Sometimes after we give a speech, we may feel like we did terrible, but when you hear the evaluation, you realize while there’s always room to improve, there are things that you did right,” Ward said. “Each time an evaluation is given, it’s given in a way that is supportive, and nurtures people.”
Clinton said Toastmasters International provides clubs with a tool to keep criticism constructive called the “sandwich technique.”
“This technique consists of an opening statement of praise, then a recommendation, followed by another form of exaltation,” Clinton said. “This way, the speaker isn’t getting only positive or negative comments, because too much of either will hinder the speaker more so than help.”
Also, Clinton said, whenever someone at Toastmasters stands to speak, applause isn’t just a nice gesture. It’s required.
“The applause not only cuts the tension of silence,” Clinton said, “but it also helps the individual to feel accepted and relaxed.”
Toastmasters is not simply a speaking club, she said, and that’s what she likes most about it. She said it is also a way to build character, trustworthiness, leadership, time management, and other values and skills that go hand-in-hand with the speaking.
“Effective communication skills are vital to building trustworthiness and an overall keen character,” Clinton said. “I like the fact that our members are not only learning how to conquer their fears of speaking in front of people, but we’re also learning how to be better evaluators, time managers, public relations persons, and leaders. The objectives of our club extend beyond mere oratory skills.”
Toastmasters can also be therapeutic, Ward said, as in the case of the speech he gave at the competition. In the speech, Ward talked about how his mother had saved souvenirs of him, including cards he had sent her and programs from his college graduation.
“The thoughts of my mother have been on my mind for some time now,” Ward said. “Actually talking about the experience helped me work through the process of grieving, but it also served as a reminder that we give people souvenirs every day, and they have meaning to people.”
Ward’s speech can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-s3gk0Y6dLw  and on his blog, “The Starkville City Jail,” at http://www.starkvillecityjail.com/ .