Don’t be ‘contumacious’: Try the Toastmasters instead

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Don’t be ‘contumacious’: Try the Toastmasters instead

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Imagine: You have to give a 10 minute speech in a second language before a large audience, and every time you say, "Um," you’re fined 100 won.
In Korean, I’d go broke in five minutes. But Korean members of the Seoul Toastmasters work through any problems, give speeches, and come back for more.
The “Toastmasters” was started in a Y.M.C.A. basement in Santa Ana, California in 1924, and since then it has grown into an international speech organization with branches in over 80 countries.
The formula is simple. You give a series of goal oriented speeches ― these include “Persuade with Power,” “Inspire Your Audience” and “The Icebreaker.” After 10 speeches, you're declared a “competent toastmaster.” Then you’re ready to choose an advanced course, each of which has a different specialty such as entertainment, persuasion, technical speaking or any number of other styles. All the while an evaluator, grammarian and “ah counter” are watching over you, rating your effectiveness, use of language and success at avoiding filler words.
In the U.S., toastmasters are usually native English speakers looking to improve their speaking skills. But here in Seoul, the speakers are mostly Koreans and for them the stress of public speaking is complicated by the unfamiliar language.
But the toastmasters have been successful nonetheless ― the Seoul branch president Thomas Greene says the toastmasters offer a different kind of learning experience. “Our aim is to improve presentation skills, not conversation skills or general English skills.” It's something an English hagwon can’t offer.
And it's not just Koreans who drop in. Ian McCulloch, the general evaluator at the Feb. 23 meeting, says their branch has seen Russians, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Spanish and other nationalities join in. Many are in public relations, sales or other speech-related fields, but not all; there are also students, doctors and even stay-at-home dads like Mr. McCulloch.
How did Mr. McCulloch become a toastmaster? “I gave one of the worst speeches a best man has ever given.” Since then, he says, he's been working hard to improve his public speaking.
“In five minutes, we can see if people will stay or go,” says Bradley Moon, a longtime member who started a toastmasters club at Microsoft Korea, where he works.
It’s all about optimism, according to the meeting’s toastmaster, Debbie Kim. “Don’t think about ability or years you’ve spent doing this. Attitude is more important.”
Though there was some stage fright on that chilly Thursday night, it seemed the participants had taken those words to heart. When Janet Kim, herself a newly christened toastmaster, handed out the “table topics” for extemporaneous speaking, there was some money lost to the ah counter, but no one choked. And the planned speeches also pressed through despite a few hitches.
Though William Han's speech came off flawlessly, when Mr. Moon performed his salesman roleplay, trying to sell Mr. Greene a pair of ear muffs, he was a little flustered to find the sample he had brought was too small for the president's head. But it was a simple matter of convincing Mr. Greene that he had a different size “in stock.”
The most academic item on the agenda was the word of the meeting, “contumacious,” meaning defiant, which speakers would earn extra applause for using, though none did. The speech topics themselves, however, were varied and accessible ― they all followed a common theme of “special days,” such as White Day or birthdays, while the responses ranged from serious to unintentionally funny. When one newly hitched member was asked what romantic escapade he could dream up for Valentine’s Day, he simply replied, “I don’t have to do that anymore because I’m already married.”


by Ben Applegate

The Seoul Toastmasters is one of eight such clubs in Korea and meets every Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. All are welcome and if you want to join, materials and dues cost 55,000 won ($56) for the first six months and 25,000 won for every six months after. The club is currently changing location ― see their Web site, www.seoultmclub.net for more information.

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