Toastmasters clubs are dedicated to promulgating the art and practice of public speaking and leadership. Dr. Ralph C. Smedley founded the organization in California in 1924; today there are more than 10,000 Toastmasters clubs with over 200,000 members world-wide, the U.S. presence being by far the greatest.
Most American cities have Toastmasters; large cities may have several dozen clubs. These community public speaking and leadership clubs operate on a not-for-profit basis, charging modest dues. The club might meet for one to two hours every week or two. Some clubs meet for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but many do not feature meals. Clubs meet at community rooms, rooms donated by schools, hospitals or houses of worship, or at restaurants.
Though formats may differ club-to-club, especially in the case of specialty clubs and advanced speaking clubs, the typical meeting begins with a business session, and then moves to “Table Topics,” the Toastmasters tradition of impromptu short speeches. Later, a few members who have volunteered in advance will give prepared speeches. Members chose their own topics, though goals for the speech are suggested by a series of Toastmaster communication and leadership manuals. The basic manual asks members to do speeches to work on gestures, voice, persuasion and other basic skills, while more advanced manuals cover the gamut from sales speeches to storytelling.
Evaluation is an important part of the Toastmasters process. Each meeting, the formal speeches will be evaluated by volunteer members; another “general evaluator” will give an assessment of the success of the meeting in general. In either case, the evaluator will point out strengths and give constructive ideas for improvement.
The Toastmasters International hierarchy—club, area, division, district, region and international—gives members significant opportunities to develop leadership skills through administrative and club-building activities; a series of manuals also assists in this process. At all these segments, Toastmasters conducts periodic speech and evaluation contests, the most important of which results in the crowning of a “World Champion of Public Speaking” at an international conference every summer.
In addition to benefiting its members and strengthening their general role in their communities, Toastmasters promotes service within the community, particularly its Youth Leadership Program, which is designed to bring the Toastmasters process to young people in the schools.
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