Twice a month, the Summit Toastmasters get together to practice their speaking and leadership skills.
Last Tuesday, their gathering had secondary meaning — to induct new officers and celebrate the club’s 25 year anniversary.
Speaking in Summit
Toastmasters International is a nonprofit organization with chapters across the globe. Its goal is educational, with an emphasis on public speaking and leadership skills. Founded in 1924, the organization now consists of more than 13,500 clubs in 116 countries. Membership in the United States exceeds 159,000.
Alan Swartz has been a member of Toastmasters since 1980. While living in Fairplay during the ‘80s, Swartz decided to found a Summit County chapter of the organization. At least 20 members are required to start a club, and the Summit group numbered 21.
Swartz continued with the group, even after moving to Buena Vista and, now, Denver. He comes down to as many meetings as he can. Though he also visits other Toastmasters groups in Denver, he enjoys his time in Summit County.
“It’s the club I started. I’m still attached,” he said.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Summit Toastmasters. Membership must stay at a minimum of six members at all times, and with the transient nature of some Summit County residents, this was occasionally difficult. Swartz remembered one year where the club had one fewer member than required, so they paid the dues for the extra member in order to stay together.
Despite the occasional obstacle, the Summit Toastmasters kept on going and eventually their numbers evened out. Most Toastmaster organizations maintain between 20 and 30 members and currently Summit County hosts 18.
Swartz has seen many lives changed by Toastmasters over the years. One woman, he recalled, drove every month from Crested Butte to be part of the club. Another, he said, “was about 28, kind of drifting through life, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. After she joined our club, she went back, got a college degree, found a relationship, got married — it just changed her life, she just got her focus.”
Swartz was on hand at Tuesday’s anniversary celebration, where he was named Toastmaster of the Year for the Summit club.
Membership into Toastmasters goes from age 18 and up. Joining requires a fee, but brings with it educational material from the organization, the opportunity to attend speaking and leadership conferences and enter into biannual speaking competitions, which go to the international level.
“We accept everybody,” said Yvonne Bryant, who previously held the position of president and then vice president of education for the Summit club. Now she is the incoming Foothills Division Governor, overseeing 30 different clubs in Colorado. “If someone has a leadership need or they have a communication need, that’s what we’re there for. We are a supportive group, helping each other grow and become better leaders and better communicators. Everybody joins for different reasons.”
Bryant joined the organization three and a half years ago and hasn’t looked back. As a planning commissioner, she wanted to improve her communications skills. After joining, she began taking part in leadership activities as well.
“For me personally, it’s learning to communicate more clearly, but at the same time I’m learning so many leadership skills,” she said of the benefits of Toastmasters. “At the same time, I get to help a lot of people, so it’s an amazing experience.”
Toastmaster meetings are well structured. First timers are expected to stand up and give a speech about themselves. Members practice giving several five to seven minute speeches, which the other members evaluate, giving praise and criticism. They also practice Table Topics — speaking off the cuff for up to two minutes.
Alice Miller joined the Summit Toastmasters two years ago. Now a resident of Blue River, she remembered a youth program run by the organization back in her native Australia. After meeting Bryant, she was inspired to join.
“Hearing those evaluations and hearing other people get evaluated and other people speaking, you go, ‘oh, I could do that,’” she said. “Just hearing other people is great to improve your own speaking. There’s nothing like actually doing it. Like anything, practice just makes you so much better. … It’s amazing how, even after one speech, how much you can improve by just getting up there and getting feedback.”
Listening to others and hearing their stories is one of the things that keeps Swartz coming back, he said. He also enjoys watching the practice and support from others begin to take effect on members’ skills and self-confidence.
“I enjoy, first of all, helping people sometimes see they can do more than they think they can, help them in lots of ways in life,” he said.