SHERIDAN — “Am I a Jonah?” Theresa Miller asks a room of attentive listeners. She takes a pause and people sit up in their seats. Her voice is unwavering and commanding in the small room. Her prompt, to connect to storytelling, weaves a vivid image of her spiritual relationship and confronting the habits she avoids.
This isn’t a morning college class. Before the sun breaks, members of Sheridan’s Cloud Peak Toastmasters club are gathered at The Hub on Smith to practice and improve their communication and leadership skills, taking turns giving speeches and split-second answers to the morning’s impromptu speaking prompt.
Toastmasters started as a series of speaking clubs organized by Ralph C. Smedley when he worked for the Young Men’s Christian Association. Smedley used his speaking clubs as a platform to create what he called “toastmasters,” a term popular in the early 1900s that referred to an attendee who gave toasts at banquets.
Smedley held the first unofficial Toastmasters meeting in 1905 in Bloomington, Illinois. It wasn’t until 1922 when Smedley began working at the newly organized YMCA in Santa Ana, California, that he formally organized the nonprofit, creating the set of rules to go along with it, according to the Toastmasters history on its website.
Soon, word spread throughout communities in other states looking to start their own Toastmasters club.
Today, Toastmasters is an international nonprofit with more than 15,800 clubs worldwide consisting of more than 300,000 members.
Cloud Peak Toastmasters has been a staple in Sheridan since 2003, with members coming for a short stay or enjoying the company of the club and continuing with it for a few years.
“Over the years we’ve had a lot of people come through from all walks of life,” said Bill Bradshaw, one of the founding members for Cloud Peak Toastmasters. “Anybody that’s put some energy into it and paid attention to projects they’re working on and been willing to accept critical feedback, has benefitted from it. I’ve heard countless stories from people about how it benefited people professionally and personally. People at work notice that people suddenly are doing a much better job at communicating and speaking and losing their nervousness.”
Val Burgess, the toastmaster for the Nov. 4 meeting, said she has been a part of the organization for six years.
“It’s just tragic that we don’t learn how to speak,” Burgess said.
So many speeches fall prey to “umms” and “ahhs” to fill the gaps, Burgess said. She said that even politicians and news anchors use these fillers to their detriment.
As well as improving the speaking skills of its members, Cloud Peak Toastmasters gives participants the tools for them to be successful in jobs, personal life and in the community. Public speaking and leadership skills are a hallmark in people’s careers, helping them be effective participants in planning and meetings, Burgess said. A piece to that is constructive criticism.
Toastmasters provides a supportive community that aims to give criticism for improvement, said Dick Sanders, a coach for Toastmasters.
Every meeting includes live evaluations completed by members and a ballot on every table. This model is similar to the type of constructive criticism Smedley’s 1902 club did when a speaker stood in front of a group of his peers to hear their thoughts.
“I think anyone who is in business, who is going to get up and speak in front of an audience, really needs to take this,” Burgess said.
The personal and professional gain are similar, Sanders said. Whether it’s one-on-one or speaking in front of 500 people, speaking well is a skill that translates to all aspects of someone’s life including improving listening and building confidence.
Often, like Miller said about “being a Jonah,” criticism can be a reason people turn away from improving their speaking skills. Miller suggests “just give it a year.”
Toastmasters is open to the public and always looking for new members. Meetings are held on the first and third Thursdays of the month and start at 6:45 p.m. at The Hub on Smith.