Allan Kaufman has told this story before — 30 years ago, in fact. That’s when the JT first interviewed him about his Toastmasters club based in Randallstown, started by Kaufman and another one of his Social Security Administration co-workers, Alan Misch. Their chapter of the international public speaking and communication club had just started up, and dues were $24 a year.
A lot has changed since then. For one, dues are $48 now, and the standardized system of Toastmaster ranks has changed dramatically. But Allan and Alan still run the Randallstown Network Toastmasters club, which now holds its Wednesday night meetings in a trailer classroom behind Woodholme Elementary School. Speakers are bracketed by a list of chores for the art station and an attendance poster, and their listeners sit at children’s desks. For Kaufman, who joined in order to improve his public speaking skills and rose to the level of Distinguished Toastmaster, there are new reasons to attend.
“I don’t gain anything in terms of skill development or any of that stuff,” he said. “I am actually in the givingback mode.” Kaufman, who now teaches public speaking classes, says that he serves as a sort of guru to the group, and if that isn’t convincing enough on its own, his vivacious, engaging speaking style certainly is.
Toastmasters, a nonprofit started in 1924, has about 350,000 members worldwide, all of whom are dedicated at various levels to being able to more competently deliver office presentations, calmly make public speeches or to just have a conversation where they have to think on their feet. Members who hit certain goals — speeches given, clubs started, attendance at the World Championship of Public Speaking — can attain rankings within the organization (Kaufman, for example, is a DTM: a Distinguished Toastmaster). Today, the organization is switching its focus to leadership, but for the 25 or so attendees at the Randallstown club’s meeting, Wednesday nights are still primarily about the speaking skills.
Xavier Loman, 25, has been involved for about four years. “It’s helped me improve my public speaking. I was very shy, so I found this online, called, and found Randallstown,” he said. “I’m a lot better in public speaking than I was, and I met a lot of new people,” he said. He recalls a speech he prepared on the importance of hygiene as one where he could tell that his skills were really improving.
Each meeting has more or less the same structure. The evening’s assigned Toastmaster — just one of the roles that was assigned to club members weeks in advance — begins the proceedings, introducing the evening’s agenda. Then, three different speakers who have prepared speeches on just about whatever they want will give their speeches to a rapt audience, some of whom are tasked with evaluating the speech for clarity, and others who track what in the club’s jargon is called “filler-itis” — “likes,” “ums,” “ahs,” etc. These speeches will also occasionally be asked to fit into a certain category — Elijah Cheek, who is relatively new to the club, gave an “icebreaker” speech, introducing himself to the room. Everyone votes on the best speech, though each is applauded heartily, especially if the assigned word of the day is used. At this meeting, the word was “prudent.”
Next are the table topics, where members are invited to test their skills and try to speak uninterrupted for at least a minute on topics they are assigned in the moment. One Wednesday night topic was “the type of music that lifts your spirits.” Again, members vote on the best presentation.
Finally comes the evaluation, where each evaluator gives their impression of the speeches they were assigned to critique. These evaluations, too, are evaluated and voted on. At the end of the evening, awards for the leading vote-getters are given out. If you’re really good, you can enter yourself into the World Championship of Public Speaking, held in a different city every year, which involves around 33,000 participants. One Randallstown alumnus, Craig Valentine, won in 1999, and is now a sought-after motivational speaker and speaking coach.
Mitch Mirkin has been the president of the Randallstown club for about two years, and has been involved on and off since 2000. “There are special things that happen at a Toastmasters meeting that I don’t see in a lot of other settings nowadays,” Mirkin said. “For one thing, no one is on his or her phone. That would be considered rude and inappropriate. We all get that, and we all respect that rule.”
Mirkin is one of a few Jewish members of the club, alongside his wife, and he sees a connection between his time in Toastmasters and his religion. “Mainly among Orthodox Jews, but certainly in other Jewish circles as well,” he said, “there is this great, time-honored institution of the d’var Torah, which basically requires the same skills we develop in Toastmasters. Whether someone is reading prepared remarks, or speaking off the cuff at a family event, he or she can be more effective, and connect better with the audience, by employing the types of skills we focus on in Toastmasters.”
What’s kept him coming for so long? Like Kaufman, he’s a smooth, confident speaker, so could it really just be the practice? Not so, says Mirkin. “I think as human beings we all have a very fundamental need and desire to express ourselves, to share our ideas and opinions, to be heard, to know that our voice matters,” he said. “Every person who shows up at a Toastmasters meeting will experience that in a friendly, respectful, supportive atmosphere.”