About 10 years ago, Seth Greenwald was preparing to make the leap from his job as an architectural designer to a project manager.
He had the qualifications needed to move up the professional ladder but found that he lacked in two key areas – the ability to communicate effectively and lead colleagues at the firm where he worked.
Soon after, Greenwald, a Pleasantville resident, attended his first Toastmasters International meeting, the Greater Stamford Toastmasters, in Connecticut. It is one of the organization’s more than 16,000 clubs throughout the United States and abroad that helps its participants improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills.
A naturally quiet and introspective person, Toastmasters was the key to helping Greenwald unlock his potential and transform his life.
“I really feel connected when I’m on stage,” said Greenwald, who currently serves as the vice president of public relations for the Hudson River Toastmasters, which meets at Maryknoll in Ossining on the second and fourth Tuesday evenings of the month. “I feel like I’m connected to the world, connected to people, connected to myself. There’s a great sense of immediacy when I’m on stage.”
A Toastmasters meeting – there are close to 30 different clubs in Westchester and about 250 throughout the metropolitan area – is a well-structured session that can run one to two hours. Each club’s members take turns filling a variety of roles to make each meeting productive and efficient.
A meeting is opened by the club president, who then introduces that session’s Toastmaster of the Day, someone who is the equivalent of a master of ceremonies.
At Hudson River Toastmasters’ Dec. 10 meeting, there were three members who were tabbed as speakers. The speakers, determined before the end of the previous meeting, prepare five- to seven-minute talks on any subject where they use guidelines set by the club to achieve certain goals, which could include delivery, vocabulary, inflection or use of their hands to enhance their presentations.
Each speaker has a designated evaluator from the group who provides feedback on what was done well and where there is room for improvement.
There is also a timer to keep the meetings flowing; a grammarian and “ah counter,” a member who charts the number of filler words, sounds and wrong usages; and a general evaluator who takes notes throughout the meeting and reports to the group on the overall flow of the meeting.
Finally, there is a Table Topics Master who comes up with a topic that members can speak about for one to two minutes, an exercise that helps people think quickly on their feet.
While it may seem intimidating, particularly for newcomers who are in the early stages of learning how to become better communicators and public speakers, there is ample positive reinforcement.
“Nobody chastises you. Toastmasters are always very friendly,” Greenwald said. “They’ll clap and everyone you meet, it felt like I was in the right place at the right time, a nice friendly club and it kept getting better and better.”
Sergeant at Arms Anne Marie Discala, a Peekskill resident who oversees four clubs in northern Westchester, including the Hudson River Toastmasters, said there are times that she still gets stage fright. However, that is natural and it helps to motivate her. There are also techniques that are encouraged, and when practiced over time, can lead to a more successful presenter.
“I know there are times if I don’t pause enough, I’m going to do an ‘ah’ or an ‘um’ or a so,” Discala said. “But sometimes you’ll see me, I’ll pause because I don’t want to get into that glitch of doing fillers, filler words.”
Dianne Marino came to her first Toastmasters meeting in October 2014. A former kindergarten teacher from New Fairfield, Conn. who still substitutes and is a children’s storyteller, Marino said she wanted to improve her storytelling skills. The biggest compliment has come from the children, she said.
“Even the little kids that I tell stories to, one said to me I did it better this time than the last time, and I know that is one of the benefits of Toastmasters,” Marino said.
Discala said that a wide variety of people are motivated to try Toastmasters. Many are professionals looking to gain the necessary skills and confidence that can set them apart at work. Others could be students, whether it’s a valedictorian looking to brush up their public speaking for their speech or an approaching college graduate hoping to hone their job interviewing skills, she said.
Other times, it can be a person who was born in a foreign country who seeks to become more confident using English, Discala said.
When each person is done addressing the group, they are greeted with a firm handshake, a look in the eye and a smile by the next person. There is a reason for that formality.
“The formality is passing the power from one person to the other,” Discala said. “That’s where that comes in. That’s the Toastmasters structure.”
Greenwald, now the author of two self-published books, said it took him a year or two to really reap the benefits of Toastmasters. Like anything else, what you put into it often determines what you get out of the group, he said.
Perhaps most importantly, while participants practice public speaking, the motto of the organization is “Where Leaders are Made.”
“Confidence is everything, I think, because people respond to confident speakers,” Greenwald said. “Otherwise, they’ll tune you out. If you’re confident, your message is going to be received much better than if you’re not delivering it confidently.”
For more information about Toastmasters, including local meetings, visit www.toastmasters or reach out to Seth Greenwald at email@example.com.