By STEVE BIGHAM
WATERBURY – Naugatuck resident Stephen Burgess took the top prize at recent public speaking contest put on locally by Toastmasters International, which, this year, is celebrating 100 years as an organization that provides a platform for individuals to improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills.
Burgess joined the Brass City Toastmasters club 10 years ago and says the experience has made him a better public speaker and more well-rounded person, all while meeting new friends along the way.
That was the vision of Toastmasters’ founders Ralph C. Smedley when he founded the first club at a YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1924.
Today, there are approximately 14,200 Toastmasters chapters in 148 countries, including three clubs in Greater Waterbury Cheshire, Southbury and Waterbury.
“Toastmasters is a wonderful value that’s out there for the community. And we have these wonderful area contests each year to be able to highlight what people learn in Toastmasters,” said Ann Canfield, the nonprofit organization’s regional director. “Wherever you are, there’s a Toastmasters near you.”
Canfield said each individual club holds regular meetings where members can either give speeches or act as evaluators. The meetings also include what are known as tabletop, impromptu speaking, where members have one to two minutes to speak on a certain topic.
And it is at the regional contests that take place all over the world during the months of January and February where members can really show off their stuff.
Burgess said he was a working as consultant at an insurance company in Hartford when he first gave Toastmasters a try.
“At first I was a typical shy person sitting in the back of the room during a meeting. I started to participate in meeting roles, but hesitated with any longer speaking roles in front of the club. I really needed to break out of my shell and saw an opportunity in the ‘Humor Master’ role. In this role, I would start off the meeting by telling a joke in front of the club. The applause and laughter was very encouraging. From this role I did my first ‘Ice Breaker’ speech and never looked back,” Burgess said.
Canfield said a typical Toastmasters meeting is a learn-by-doing workshop in which participants hone their speaking and leadership skills in a no-pressure atmosphere. A typical group has 20 to 40 members who meet weekly, biweekly or monthly.
Brass City Toastmasters meets on the 2nd and 4th Monday of the month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the ION Bank Community Room 270 Church Street, Naugatuck.
A typical meeting lasts 60 to 90 minutes. There is no instructor, Canfield said. Instead, members evaluate one another’s presentations.
For information on when and where the area’s next meeting is, visit toastmastersclubs.org.