The late comedian George Jessel famously quipped that the human brain is a wonderful organ.

“It starts to work as soon as you are born,” he said, “and it doesn’t stop until you get up to deliver a speech.”

Glossophobia, the fear of speaking in public, affects some 27 million Americans and creates anxiety for many more. It’s been estimated the fear creates a 10 percent impairment on wage earnings and a 15 percent impairment on promotional opportunities. And yet, only about 8 percent of those who suffer from the social anxiety disorder seek professional help despite the impact it has on their lives.

Fortunately, there is an organization called Toastmasters that helps improve public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. Founded in 1924, membership today exceeds 357,000 and is offered in more than 16,600 clubs in 143 countries.

Fortunately, you won’t have to go far to take advantage of this opportunity. Venice Area Toastmasters has been active locally since 1984 and, during the past 35 years, has helped scores of community leaders become more confident speakers and communicators.

“I would say that the largest impact that Toastmasters has had on my career is the confidence it gave me,” said Kathy Lehner, president of the Venice Chamber of Commerce. “It has given me the skills and the confidence when speaking to know that the points I want to get across will actually come across.”

Local businessman Greg Vine, one of the founding members of the Venice club, said he describes Toastmasters as a parochial, self-help organization that enables members to become better public speakers in order to advance whatever mission and causes are needed. “Toastmasters has provided me the best education in my lifetime. I’ve learned a lot about public speaking, leadership and organizational skills. But more importantly, every week, I have learned from professional-level people things I need to know about.”

Vine said he joined a Sarasota Toastmasters club in the early 1980s in order to help grow his budding business. After several years of driving the long distance every Wednesday morning, however, he began the effort to form a club closer to home. With the help of two other Toastmasters, June Bowers and Bill Collier, they began offering Speechcraft courses to local businesses, governments, and non-profit organizations on how to improve their speaking and leadership skills.

Membership in Venice Toastmasters has fluctuated over the years, Vine said, but the club currently has about two dozen active members who have distinguished themselves both locally and throughout the state. Although members represent a wide variety of backgrounds, from realtors and artists, to financial planners and ministers, they all share the desire to communicate more effectively and to share the opportunity with others, he said.

Meetings are held every Tuesday morning, from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m., at the Venice Chamber of Commerce. Members assume various responsibilities for each meeting, from speaking or evaluating a speech to serving as timekeeper or table topics (sharing impromptu remarks on a given topic for one minute).

“Toastmasters never feels like work,” said Bonnie Morse, who joined the club a year ago after earning her degree from the University of Florida and moving to the Venice area. “It’s enjoyable because there are always people there who are funny and quick-witted, warm and encouraging. For that, among other reasons, it encourages me to reach out to the community and join other organizations. As a result of my involvement with Toastmasters, I’ve become involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Venice Area Beautification. I also had the opportunity to judge the holiday parade last year, which was a lot of fun.”

Being only vaguely familiar with Toastmasters, Morse remembers her first experience as being an extremely welcoming environment. “All of the members were exceptionally nice and the entire meeting had that feel to it. Whatever level you come to the club at, they provide you the tools and encouragement to move forward. The one thing you discover in Toastmasters is that you are never competing with anyone else in the room. You are only competing with yourself to become better.”

Toastmasters offers an online platform called Pathways that guides members through the various aspects of public speaking, from organizing a speech and the effective use of gestures, to effectively delivering a speech. “Pathways provides a list of objectives and goals to help define what you need to improve upon,” added Morse. “It’s also very helpful for the evaluation process. It can be very specific about your goals for each speech and working through those goals.”

Vine said one of the valuable lessons he has learned as a Toastmaster is how to be a better listener. “You are surrounded by people who want to help you succeed. And in order to provide them with constructive criticism, you have to listen carefully to what they are saying as well as how they are saying it.”

Another benefit, Vine said, is your ability to attend other clubs and workshops around the world and learn from amazing speakers and presenters. “Perhaps one of the most interesting clubs I ever visited was in Russia. Fortunately, I had a friend with me who was able to translate.”

And what advice would Lehner give to someone considering Toastmasters?

“I would give the same advice a friend gave me when I joined Toastmasters decades ago: you may be good, but there’s always room to get better,” she said. “The question then becomes: how could you not want to improve upon yourself? When you are at your best, you only bring out the best in everything you touch.”

The public is invited to attend a Toastmasters Open House meeting on Tuesday, March 26, at 7:30 a.m. at the Venice Chamber of Commerce.

For more information about Venice Area Toastmasters, call 941-223-4893, or visit www.toastmasters.org.

Larry Humes writes about local history and can be reached at: 1926Venice@gmail.com

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