Corralling the butterflies with the Toastmasters

(Illustration by Will Dendis)

(Illustration by Will Dendis)

“Surreptitious – it means to do secretly,” Wordmaster Geri Jones tells me. She says I can score bonus points with the crowd if I include it in my speech.

I am standing in front of 20 or so people whom I have never met in my life, delivering a short speech about the worst date I’ve ever had. I ramble pensively for about a minute – 59 seconds, as I’m later told by the Kingston/Rhinebeck Toastmasters Club’s official timekeeper – and receive a flurry of congratulatory applause.

Jones promises that I “did good” with a wide, supportive smile. On a legal pad, she tallies the number of times each speaker says “um…” in the first portion of tonight’s meeting, called Table Topics, in which Toastmasters volunteer to deliver a short, unplanned talk . Tonight’s topic: Valentine’s Day. Thankfully, I manage to register only one “um” in my minute up front, which Geri says was very minor and “right in the beginning.”


After the table topics, three Toastmasters make a trip to the podium to deliver their speeches, short chats about Valentine’s Day mishaps and happy dates. Patrick Fuchs, the evening’s Jokemaster, approaches the podium and tells a genuinely funny doctor joke. Everyone is in work clothes, smiling and talkative, paying their undivided attention to whomever’s standing at the podium.

This is not how I pictured the Toastmasters Club. I envisioned, for some reason, 50 old men at circular dinner tables wearing tuxedos, dining on salmon croquettes and puff pastry, taking turns swapping long diatribes about the financial markets and today’s social ills while nursing highballs. It’s something about the name Toastmasters. Even the Toastmasters local chapter website betrays a sense of formality, with a dapper-looking guy in a monochrome lavender tie and dress shirt addressing an unseen crowd.

The actual club, at least our local chapter, is an egalitarian meeting place for people of all different talent levels to converge, practice, and critique one another’s public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld once observed that since the number one fear is public speaking and the number two fear is death, most people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. Most Toastmasters speak of joining the club to overcome that fear; many after flubbing a presentation at work or a formal occasion.

Rookie Toastmasters have to deliver ten speeches, each within a certain set of guidelines, to receive the title of Competent Communicator. A Competent Communicator can, with practice, become an Advanced Communicator, Advanced Leader and perhaps the Grand Poobah of them all, Distinguished Toastmaster.

Distinguished Toastmaster Dan Stott has climbed that mountain. The goal of Toastmasters, according to Stott, isn’t to stop the butterflies in your stomach when you speak in front of a crowd, “it’s to get those butterflies to fly in formation.” Stott has been a Toastmaster since 1992, when he joined to improve his communication skills after starting his own consulting firm.

“Toastmasters is an organization that helps you improve both your communication and leadership skills,” said Stott. “It’s a people-helping-people type of organization. We have educational materials and the main program comes from Toastmasters International – we basically deploy it at the local level. I enjoy mentoring people and helping people, and that’s why I’ve stayed with the club for such a long time – the opportunity to help others. The most important thing is to give people a protective environment in which they can get up to the lectern, and to give them guidance along the way.”

“I’ve been coming to the meetings for over a year,” said Amy Raff, director of the Woodstock Public Library. “Public speaking, for me, is terrifying, and it shouldn’t have to be. They say Toastmasters helps a lot with that, and it has. A couple of weeks ago I had to deliver a speech in front of about 80 people. But it was good; I didn’t pass out. It’s a really supportive environment here, really nice. But there’s good criticism, too.”

And plenty. Each longer presentation is evaluated at the conclusion of the meeting, and even the evaluations are evaluated. Winners get a ribbon.

Wordmaster Geri Jones, who joined Toastmasters to improve her public speaking ability after choking during a poetry reading at a wedding, says that Toastmasters has improved her confidence tremendously, and while her butterflies aren’t flying in formation yet, they’re getting there.

The Kingston/Rhinebeck Toastmasters meet on the second Thursday of each month in the Ulster County Office Building on the 6th floor Council Chambers at 7 p.m. sharp. More information on the Kingston/Rhinebeck Toastmasters can be found at