Springfield Toastmasters

What do people fear more than dying? Giving a speech. For the average person, it’s more terrifying than death, heights, spiders and even mothers-in-law (I’m just kidding about the last one.)

I should know. When I worked in advertising, I dreaded giving presentations. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t relax. I was certain I’d fall on my face and we’d lose the account.

Finally, last year, I joined Toastmasters in downtown Springfield. What a relief. At first, I was a little nervous, but the group was so friendly and supportive, my fears slowly melted away. The more speeches I gave, the more relaxed I became. Recently, I was named president of the club – an unlikely feat for someone who used to dread giving presentations.

091311-michael-mcgovern.JPGMichael McGovern is the president of Springfield Toastmasters
Founded in 1924, Toastmasters is an international organization with 12,500 clubs and 260,000 members. Besides improving public speaking skills, it enhances leadership capabilities as well. Famous Toastmasters have included Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Tim Allen, star of TV’s “Home Improvement” and Peter Coors, chairman of Coors Brewing Co.

“Toastmasters changed my life,” says Chris Matthews. “They really did. Put me on the stage. I don’t know what I would have done without that positive boost.”

The Springfield Toastmasters club meets twice a month, with each meeting following the same basic format: there are prepared speeches as well as short, impromptu speeches about the topic of the day. Instead of having an instructor, members evaluate one another’s speeches, which is the key to the program’s success. Phil Hayes, the club’s sergeant-at-arms and a vice president at Merrill Lynch, is one of the most skilled evaluators in the club.

“I use the sandwich technique,” says Hayes. “First, I compliment the speaker on what he or she did right. Then I offer some constructive criticism, followed by some additional praise. It’s vital that the person be encouraged to come back and try again.”

Patty Hobert, the large group sales executive at Health New England and the club’s secretary, has seen a dramatic improvement in her public speaking as a result of her work at Toastmasters.

“Toastmasters has given me the confidence and practice necessary to conduct sales presentations more effectively,” she says.

Table Topics, the impromptu portion of the meeting, is perhaps the most challenging – and fun – part of the day. The Table Topics Master throws out a topic – from preparing your favorite summer dish to debating whether to abolish capital punishment – and volunteers give a one-to-two minute speech on the subject.

In a recent meeting, Ann-Marie Mahnken, the treasurer of the club, asked members to describe their experience during the recent Springfield tornado. Her choice of topic was perfect: nearly every club member stepped to the podium to describe what happened to them that fateful day.

“Table Topics is great practice for quickly organizing your thoughts and speaking clearly and succinctly off the cuff,” says Shera Cohen, the club’s vice president of public relations and membership and the events coordinator at the Springfield Armory. “It’s a skill that every business executive needs.”

Springfield Toastmasters recently installed its new officers, who include Michael McGovern, president; Christine Overstreet, vice president of education; Shera Cohen, vice president of public relations and membership; Patty Knox Herbert, secretary; Ann-Marie Mahnken, treasurer; and Phil Hayes, sergeant-at-arms.

The group meets the first and third Wednesdays of the month from noon to 1:00 p.m. Guests are welcome. Participation is encouraged but not mandatory.

Meetings take place in the lower-level conference room of the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network Building, 1351 Main Street, Springfield. Use the side entrance through the Market Place. For details, visit or call (413)737-8474.

10 Ways to Control the Jitters
“The secret to overcoming nervousness,” says Christine Overstreet, the vice president of education for Toastmasters, “is to rehearse your speech until you are truly comfortable with your material.” Overstreet is the assistant coordinator of the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program at Mount Holyoke College. Here are 10 other Toastmasters tips to help you control your butterflies and give a great speech:

• Use notecards – Write your key points on notecards to help you remember what you want to say.

• Practice aloud – Rehearse your speech aloud several times. If possible, have a family member or friend give you feedback.

• Accept your anxiety – Everybody is nervous before a speech. Worrying only makes your anxiety worse. Focus instead on what you want to say.

• See your nervousness as a positive thing – It makes you sharper and more energized.

• Visualize success – See yourself giving a dynamic speech and getting applause from the audience. It’s a real confidence booster.

• Accept imperfection – No one is expecting a perfect speech. Do your best and see this speech as a stepping stone to bigger and better things to come.

• Don’t apologize for being nervous – People probably won’t notice it anyway.

• You’ll relax once you get going – You’ll calm down as you get into the flow of things and concentrate on your delivery.

• It’s OK to read – If you’re extremely anxious, it’s OK to read your speech. (Even President Obama reads his.) Just make sure you look up frequently to make eye contact and engage your audience.

• Take your time – When you’re nervous, you have a tendency to speak too quickly. Slow down and let people digest what you have to say. They’re rooting for you!