Toastmasters provides a friendly venue to flex speaking skills

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Lt. Col. Robert Munson, Ph.D., reserve advisor to the commandant of Air Command and Staff College, is no stranger to public speaking as an instructor. He also has previous experience as an intelligence briefer. Yet despite all his on-the-job public speaking experience, he finds great value in his association with the Maxwell chapter of Toastmasters International.

"Toastmasters gives you a chance to practice speaking outside of the job," said Colonel Munson. "It lets you give speeches on subjects you are interested in rather than job-related subjects."

The club welcomes Airmen, civilians, contractors and anyone else interested in boosting their public speaking and leadership skills, said Ms. Elva Harris, president of the Maxwell chapter of Toastmasters and member since 2003. "We highly encourage people to come visit and join the club," she said. "The rewards are priceless."

The Maxwell chapter meets the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., in the contracting conference/training room (NW 201) on the second floor of Building 804.

Gunter Annex also has a Toastmasters chapter that meets the first and third Thursdays of each month, 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., in the Koehler Room (Room 134) on the first floor of building 856.

Ms. Harris said Toastmasters provides the opportunity to practice useful skills in a non-stressful manner. "To get ahead in life, people need to learn how to communicate effectively," she said.

Participants provide constructive criticism to fellow members practicing their speech skills, said Colonel Munson. They practice communication skills by filling a meeting role, ranging from giving prepared or impromptu speeches, or by serving as timer, evaluator or grammarian. "You're there to help them, not bring them down," he said. "It's a very positive way to improve."

Ms. Harris particularly enjoys participating in table topics, a method where she practices thinking on her feet by giving a speech on a topic at random. "It's a very non-intimidating environment," she said. "We do not judge or criticize. We critique."

Members advance through the speaking track by completion of self-paced speech projects, each building upon the other in skills and difficulty until reaching the level of distinguished speaker. Though Toastmasters is more synonymous with public speaking, the organization also has a leadership track that encourages members to flex their leadership muscles by taking an active role in the club.

Ms. Harris, who works in the base legal office, learned about Toastmasters from a college instructor when she was taking a speech course. A coworker informed her about the Maxwell chapter, and she has reaped the benefits of her involvement. "Professionally and personally, it has built my confidence up," she said. "I speak in the church all the time, but outside of that, it's a new arena."

Colonel Munson has been involved in the Maxwell Toastmasters club at least 2 1/2 years. "I've been interested quite a while because I had an uncle involved in it," he said.

"I enjoy practicing speaking," he said. "It makes me write material out and focus more on speaking rather than the subject presented as I do when I'm an instructor. It's a good opportunity to expand your speaking especially if you're in a job that requires it."

Colonel Munson also appreciated that Toastmasters gives him the opportunity to meet new people. "At the Toastmasters here at Maxwell, all the people here are those I wouldn't normally come in contact with through my job," he said.

Speech contests give members a chance to hone their public speaking further through competition. The next local competition is the district's International Speech Contest held today and Saturday as part of the district conference in Prattville, said Ms. Harris.

Competitions consist of five to seven, 10-15 minute timed speeches on topics of a speaker's choosing, she said. Speeches are judged on grammar, avoidance of colloquialisms and other measures of quality. A speaker generally competes against 8-10 other speakers. "You also compete against other clubs," said Ms. Harris.

Ms. Harris has enjoyed success in Toastmasters International Speech Contests. Last year, she won 1st place in the area contest and second in the district contest.

She noted that since the club is international, people often take the club with them when they deploy.

According to the Web site, the nonprofit Toastmasters International has nearly 250,000 members in more than 12,500 clubs in 106 countries who hone communication and leadership skills. There are 71 clubs in Alabama, seven of which are in the Montgomery area.