Standing in front of a group of women, Chana Gittle Deray detailed what she thought was the scariest part of participating in Toastmasters, the international program designed to help people develop public speaking skills through a series of speeches and evaluations.
“It’s the timer,” she told the group on a recent Monday night, referring to the role of using a stopwatch to keep track of how long people speak during each speech, choosing that over the perils of giving a 15-minute presentation in front of a crowd of a people, creating a speech off the cuff when necessary or vocally offering constructive criticism of other members’ speeches. “I know it sounds pathetic, but you’re looking at a woman who consistently burns dinner.”
Met with laughter and applause, Deray returned to her seat after a brief explanation of her fears of the timing role. She was participating in “Table Topics,” a portion of the meeting where participants create an impromptu one to two-minute speech about a designated topic.
On that evening, the topics revolved around each participant’s experience with Toastmasters, part of a celebratory meeting inducting new leadership and recognizing the club’s growth and accomplishments at the start of its fourth year.
Deray was one of a group of women who started the Woman 2 Woman division of Toastmasters International. The group meets every Monday evening at the Center for Women — a National Council of Jewish Women project that offers training and mentorship to women — where members participate in a strict schedule of speeches, mentorship and evaluation. Because of its location at the Center for Women, the group is restricted to just women.
Deray was inspired to start the group after participating in other Toastmasters programs in Western Pennsylvania and thinking about how the atmosphere would be different if it were just women.
“Women have an ability to support women that’s very special. And when it’s just women, that comes out more,” she said. “Life can steal your voice. … Come here, find your voice, your leadership. Make your mistakes here with women who will say, ‘Good for you for trying.’”
There are about 16,400 Toastmasters clubs in 141 countries, serving about 352,000 people, according to material from the international organization.
For the members, the Woman 2 Woman group has created a strong network of friends and mentors that allows them to learn more than just public speaking skills at each meeting.
“I think it makes it more supportive because if I have some question not related to Toastmasters, I can go up to almost everyone here and ask their opinion,” said Daria Katson, a member of the group who joined shortly after moving to Pittsburgh from Russia in order to improve her confidence as a non-native English speaker. “This group of women is really strong. They’re so supportive and so diverse…The only thing I can do is admire them.”
Each meeting consists of two or three speeches by members, ranging from quick “icebreaker” speeches introducing themselves to the group to long presentations complete with PowerPoint slides, diagrams or impromptu skits. Each speaker is evaluated by another member. The evaluation focuses on everything from volume to subject matter to body language to how often the speaker clicks her tongue, something many people aren’t aware they do until their first speech.
Mara Kaplan, the outgoing president of the club, said the group is good at tailoring the evaluations to each presenter’s needs, a byproduct of the trusting environment that the women-centric group has created.
“We are gentle with each other when we evaluate them. We allow people to feel comfortable telling very personal stories [and] we also push each other,” she said. “We’re very good at telling where each person is.
“When people come to a first meeting, I hope that they walk away with that this is a very welcoming group. This is a safe space,” Kaplan continued. “Then when they’re members, I hope they take away a sense of confidence.”
When signing up for the program, each participant takes a survey to determine what her goal is and what the best path is for her to follow, Kaplan said. The program costs about $7.50 per month to participate, as well as a $20 new member fee.
“There’s always more to learn and Toastmasters is the kind of place where you grow,” said Sonia McKoy, the incoming president of Woman 2 Woman.
McKoy, like many people, joined after coming to the Center for Women. In the three years that she has been participating in Toastmasters, she said the program gave her the confidence to start her own business as an image consultant for women. “Sometimes you hear stories of what people experienced and think if they can do it, I can do it,” McKoy said of her time in the club.
During her term as president, McKoy hopes to encourage women to speak as much as possible and to remember the reason they joined — so they can most effectively and efficiently complete their goals.
For Tricia Nagel, 29, her goals involve not only becoming a strong public speaker and forming bonds with the women in the group, but also becoming an advocate for people with chronic illness. In her first speech, Nagel talked about her experience with Crohn’s disease, one of her first times talking about her illness in a public setting. She joined Toastmasters, she said, in order to speak for fellow sick people.
“I need to give myself a voice,” she told the women, who instantly responded with applause and praise for the newest member. PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.