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Public speech? Have no fear ... Toastmasters is here

| Friday, Jan. 7, 2011

Public speaking used to be a nightmare for North Huntingdon resident Charlie Blythe.

Whenever he approached a podium, his palms would start to sweat. He became forgetful and his words were cluttered with verbal pauses, such as "um" and "uh," as he stuttered and stammered through speeches.

But all of that changed when he joined the Toastmasters, a nonprofit club focusing on helping members improve their public speaking skills.

Blythe, 56, joined the Monroeville Toastmasters in 2002. He grew tired of driving to meetings and started the Norwin Toastmasters in 2007.

"Our mission is simple -- we provide a supportive and positive learning environment for members to develop leadership and communication skills," Blythe said. "We're kind of a funny organization because we're nonprofit, but we don't fund raise or have our own foundation.

"The only thing we want is to help people who really want to stand up in front of a group of people and have a better public speaking presence."

The Toastmasters started in the basement of the YMCA in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1924.

According to the Toastmasters International website, founder Ralph Smedley started the group while working as the YMCA's director of education. He noticed the Santa Ana YMCA's membership struggled with public speaking while presiding over meetings. Instead of offering a public speaking class, Smedley wanted members to be able to learn by participating in a supportive environment that was similar to a social club.

Since then, it has grown into an international nonprofit organization with 12,500 clubs in 113 countries. It has about 250,000 members. There are about 40 Toastmasters clubs in the Pittsburgh region.

Toastmaster alumni include Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews," actors Tim Allen and Leonard Nimoy, Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell and former Boston Celtics coach K.C. Jones.

Irwin resident Maury Confer, 53, joined the Toastmasters to overcome his fear of public speaking.

"Some people are naturally good at public speaking, and others aren't," Confer said. "I knew I would be better off if I could speak and articulate what I had to say clearly."

The Norwin Toastmasters has about 20 members, who each speak at every meeting.

The club members, who range from college students to retirees, get to hone their public speaking etiquette by delivering planned and impromptu speeches, which are critiqued by their peers.

Each speaker receives constructive criticism after speaking, which makes it easier to speak in front of large crowds, Confer said.

"It's practice," he said. "Toastmasters really shows you that there is nothing to fear."

Norwin Toastmasters meet at 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month in St. Agnes Catholic Church's Old Convent Building, 11400 St. Agnes Lane, North Huntingdon.

The next meeting is Tuesday. The club collects dues of $33 every six months.

For more information, visit www.toastmasters.org .

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