It was a hot topic at a well-attended town meeting. He sat silently in his seat, wanting to make a point that he knew would move the discussion forward, but was just unable to raise his hand for the mike. "Hell with it," he told himself, "nobody would listen anyway." Nearby, a young mom had had enough. She amazed herself when she heard her voice boom across the room, "I've got something to say here," but when she was handed the mike, her thoughts tumbled out in disarray, her voice trailed off with a final, "I mean, it's like, like, you guys don't really know, like it's just wrong, so wrong!" She sat down dejectedly. "Well, that was a waste of air time," she thought.
A community is better off when citizens share informed opinions, express ideas with power and persuasion, debate right and wrong with reasoned arguments, and engage one another in fruitful dialog. Yet how many remain silent during crucial discussions? There's an old Seinfeld line about the notion that public speaking is more fearful than death itself: "In other words," our comic surmises, "at a funeral the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy." In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health claims that nearly 75 percent of the population suffers from speech anxiety. Most likely, the rest still have plenty of butterflies in their stomachs when speaking publicly -- they've just taught them to fly in formation.
Most colleges today recognize "speaking skills" as an essential outcome of a college education, and for good reason. Many industries seek graduates who can express themselves clearly, make cogent arguments, and demonstrate the interpersonal skills and self-confidence that relate so strongly to skills in public speaking. It's not enough to have a grasp of one's subject matter, successful graduates need to convey information in ways that are accessible to others. They need to distinguish good arguments from bad, spurious claims from genuine, and truth from falsehoods. Skills in public speaking allow a person to demonstrate knowledge while building communities of like-minded thinkers and to assume leadership positions comfortably. Effective speakers know their audiences, appreciate diverse viewpoints, and, most importantly, have learned to listen to others.
Brattleboro has its share of eloquent and persuasive speakers, but a reasonable assumption is that many of our neighbors would, if not preferring the casket to the pulpit, leave the open mike open even when they have something to say. And the problem is hardly confined to town meetings. The job interview, parent/teacher conference, church meeting, court appearance, work presentation, wedding toast and, yes, eulogy, are all situations in which speech anxiety may prevent us from expressing our thoughts in ways that others can hear and appreciate.
There is a group in Brattleboro that has been providing a comfortable, anxiety-free environment for members of all skill levels to grow in the art of public speaking. Its stated mission is "to provide a mutually supportive and positive learning environment in which every individual member has the opportunity to develop oral communication and leadership skills, which in turn foster self-confidence and personal growth." As a member since 2011, I can say unequivocally that Brattlemasters (www.brattlemasters.toastmastersclubs.org), a chapter of Toastmasters, International, is, indeed, achieving this mission and having fun doing it.
Meetings fly by with a variety of activities. Members take turns serving as Toastmaster (emcee), speaker, speech evaluator, timer, grammarian, and even "ah/um" counter. A "table topics master" is in charge of presenting topics for extemporaneous speaking activities. The atmosphere is supportive and laid back (this is Brattleboro, after all). Members move at their own pace and never is there pressure to perform. Meetings typically include three, five- to seven-minute prepared speeches followed by evaluations and unprepared speaking activities. The speaker determines the content. Some entertain, others inform, whereas others move the audience to action. Whatever the topic may be, the speaker knows that she or he will have an attentive audience and will grow from the experience.
Current membership includes SIT and Marlboro Graduate students, authors, consultants, professors, homemakers, a carpenter, candy entrepreneur, knitting instructor, journalist and more. This wonderfully eclectic group meets every other Thursday for 90 minutes of speaking, listening, laughter, insightful analysis and personal growth. Some join simply to fine-tune their advanced skills, whereas others come to overcome speech anxieties that have long plagued them. One member credited her BrattleMasters experience for providing a setting that allowed her to rediscover her voice and finally conduct job interviews (she left the club after a successful job search in New Hampshire). Many come to appreciate the rare opportunity to be heard and to join a group with no other purpose than to see its members improve. In doing so, they only strengthen the fabric of our community.
Tim Maciel, Ed.D., is an international and higher education consultant currently serving as VP/Education for BrattleMasters. He lives in Brattleboro. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.