- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

Your heart pounds. Your hands shake. Your throat is dry, your memory a blank.

All because you are called upon to give a report, a toast, a eulogy, or even an introduction to someone else’s talk.

You are not alone. Public speaking is considered the most anxiety-provoking experience many people ever face — “the number one phobia in America” according to Burton Rubin of Alexandria, a lawyer by training whose own problem was so severe he started a business to help others in the same boat.

“Anxiety-relieving drugs don’t always work that well,” he says, comparing them to a mop that soaks up water rather than a fix for the leak.

Called Stagefright Survival School, a $2,500 course that can be taken over 10 weeks or a single intensive weekend, Mr. Rubin developed the program with a psychiatrist colleague for people whose lives are seriously affected by the same problem. By comparison, he says, Toastmasters International “is for hobbyists.”

“We regard it as important to understand the mechanism of stage fright and methods to deal with it. It’s essentially a chemical problem,” he maintains. The not-so-secret cure? “To learn to displace self-conscious thinking — thinking about yourself.” Obviously, that is easier said than done or Mr. Rubin would still be practicing law.

The Greater Washington area is awash with lawyers and other professionals who need communication skills to be effective in everyday life. Fortunately, there are several other less expensive avenues and even Web sites to which troubled souls can turn for relief in a supportive environment. Results vary, of course, with the individual and his or her diligence in confronting the issue, which, for many, goes beyond learning vocal techniques.

Learning how to organize one’s remarks is an equally important skill involved in effective communication, most public speaking students agree.

That was only part of the experience enjoyed by Connie Donohoe, of Potomac, when she joined a private organization called the Capital Speakers Club. The club, which gives luncheon speakers a three-minute limit, meets monthly in Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club.

“I’m very long-winded and can’t say anything in three minutes,” she says.

Giving a talk about planning her daughter’s wedding and related matters “turned out to be very funny and in a way broke the ice for me,” she recalls. Now, l7 years later, she cherishes the words of wisdom imparted to her by the club’s tutor and mentor, Jean Miller, a professor at George Washington University.

“It got easier and easier every year because I lost the fear,” Mrs. Donohoe says. “If you prepare, you should not be afraid. Jean was great about how to put a speech together: ‘Tell ‘em what you tell ‘em and then tell why you told them,’ ” she says in a mock summary.

Candidates for the club are recommended by fellow members, all of whom are required to take an eight-week course covering basic speaking skills before joining.

“They are all women, with a lot from the diplomatic community, and women who own small businesses,” says Ms. Miller. “Women give a speech at every meeting, and we grade them orally. … I’ve had women [in the club] say they couldn’t speak up at PTA meetings and now have the ability.

“When people are in school, they don’t recognize the importance of this. Not until they are faced with the prospect of giving a speech in the real world where they have real influence or want to,” she adds.

By contrast, Toastmasters International, which has chapters across the world, is open to anyone 18 and older, except when a club chooses to restrict membership to a special interest group. The Web site (www.toastmasters- .org/find) lists clubs by name and number according to geographical area, along with meeting time and place and whether there is any eligibility requirement.

The Washington area is home to hundreds of clubs, one of which, the Castle Toastmasters Club, composed of members from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, dates back to 1960. It meets twice a month in the GAO Building on G Street Northwest.

Clubs meet “literally almost every day and on every block” on and around Capitol Hill, says Richard Woodford, a lawyer who belongs to two clubs, one that meets twice monthly in a Senate office building and another near his home in Alexandria. The difference between what he calls his “toastmaster journey” and an organization such as Dale Carnegie Training, he says, is that Toastmasters is “pretty much self-driven” and is “a lot more economical.” New members pay $20, plus around $33 every six months. In return, they get a monthly magazine and educational materials that include course manuals.

Completion of a progressive 10-speech program intended to cover different aspects of speech development — with topic and time chosen voluntarily by a member — designates a member as a Competent Communicator.

“Everyone, if they are honest about themselves, can always learn new methods in communication and leadership,” Mr. Woodford attests, saying he wishes he had known sooner about the advantages to be gained from participating in such a structured and supportive organization.

Toastmasters meetings are conducted with precision to feature both planned and spontaneous talks; clubs — ideally small enough to give each member a participating role and rotating title — constantly are being formed to suit different needs. Member evaluations of speeches are a core element.

Christine Hanson, a press secretary on Capitol Hill as well as adjunct speech teacher at George Washington University, is a member of the U.S. Senate Club that meets two Fridays a month and instigator of a Thursday evening club begun on the GW campus. The latter has mostly women members, while the former includes women and men lawyers, scientists and health care administrators.

“I think it has changed my personality,” says geneticist Bonnie Maidak of her involvement in the Senate Club, where she now competes in Toastmasters District events. She is less shy socially, more gregarious.

Toastmasters teaches skills for life, she says. “You can recognize things you need to say and not need to say. You can train yourself to think better on your feet and train your mind to formulate an answer so that it sounds coherent.”

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