Toastmasters International marks 90th anniversary

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Don Michel used jokes, hand gestures and pop-culture references to tell a room full of Toastmasters about one of the most frightening days of his life — the day his twin sons were born prematurely.

“I had never felt so helpless,” said Michel, 45, of Adams Township, before he chronicled the outpouring of assistance his family received for about 15 people at a recent meeting of the Cranberry High Noon Toastmasters Club.

Michel has crafted his public-speaking skills with Toastmasters for nearly five years and has earned the highest title, Distinguished Toastmaster.

Toastmasters International is a global organization made up of local clubs in which members come together to practice public speaking and develop leadership skills. The organization is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

Pittsburgh's northern suburbs have six public Toastmasters clubs — three in Cranberry and one each in Ross Township, Franklin Park and O'Hara Township.

Westinghouse Electric Co. in Cranberry and Medrad Inc. in Marshall Township also have corporate clubs that are open only to employees.

Members gather regularly to give short speeches on a wide variety of topics and are evaluated and critiqued by the other club members.

There are a variety of Toastmasters manuals on different speech styles or leadership skills. As members complete programs in the manuals, they earn titles such as Competent Communicator, Competent Leader or Distinguished Toastmaster.

Tim Maloney, president of the Beacon Toastmasters of Pittsburgh, has seen an influx of new members in his club.

The Beacon club, which meets at Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church in Ross, gained 10 new members in 2013, Maloney said.

The club has several members who were born in other countries, which, Maloney said, gives the club an “international flavor.”

“For them, English is their second languages, and Toastmasters helps them gain confidence,” he said.

Maloney, 50, of Pittsburgh's Brighton Heights neighborhood, owns a cleaning business, Dirt Doctors, and has been a Toastmaster for two and a half years. He said participating in Toastmasters “has definitely paid off,” for him.

“Public speaking was never a strong suit of mine,” he said.

Maloney has given informative speeches about his business, persuasive speeches about why everyone needs a cleaning service and humorous speeches about his travels.

“It really is unlimited. You can give a 10-minute speech about your car if you had to,” Maloney, a Competent Communicator and Competent Leader, said.

In Franklin Park, the North Hills Toastmasters Club meets at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills.

Distinguished Toastmaster Linda Young, a past club president, said the club has just under 40 members, which is about the most a club can accommodate and that there had been hesitant discussion about splitting into two groups. But that's off the table for now.

“It's more than a club. It's a family, and no one wants to leave the family,” Young, who lives in Franklin Park, said.

Members who aren't speaking during a Toastmasters meeting take on different roles to help those giving speeches.

Evaluators give constructive feedback to speakers. Timers keep track of how long speeches run. Grammarians keep track of word usage and verbal tics, such as “ums” and “likes.”

The local clubs are in Toastmasters International's District 13, which encompasses southwestern Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia and Ohio.

The district, for which Melissa McGavick of Cranberry is the lieutenant governor of education and training, is one of the fastest-growing districts in the country, she said.

District 13 has about 1,500 Toastmasters. There are 80 clubs, plus four in the charter process, compared to 69 clubs five years ago and 53 clubs 10 years ago.

McGavick, who has her own company — McGavick Interactive Training, which offers employee training for businesses and schools — attributed the uptick in Toastmasters membership to an uncertain economy and competitive job market, with limited leadership opportunities.

“More and more people are recognizing that communication and leadership are important for most jobs,” McGavick, a Distinguished Toastmaster, said.

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. Reach her at or at 724-772-6353.

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