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Toastmasters club learns leadership over lunch

Public speaking groups provide friendly practice

Posted: December 16, 2013 - 1:04am
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Brian Bezenek gives a prepared speech during a Toastmasters meeting in the Federal Building last week.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Brian Bezenek gives a prepared speech during a Toastmasters meeting in the Federal Building last week.

For years, National Weather Service forecaster Brian Bezenek dreaded speaking before a crowd. At work, he didn’t have the confidence to address his coworkers, he said. In clubs, he was content to be a follower.

“I was the king of ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs,’” Bezenek said. “At work, every time my performance evaluation would come up, my boss would say, ‘You should join Toastmasters, you should join Toastmasters.’”

Finally, in 2009, he did join Toastmasters International, an organization of thousands of clubs around the world that provides a curriculum and a forum for improving public speaking. Every week, Juneau’s two clubs — Valley Toastmasters and downtown’s Taku Toastmasters — meet to trade speeches on topics they think up, following manuals guided toward members’ individual goals.

Bezenek is now a Toastmasters International Area Governor, overseeing the 34 clubs in Alaska and the Yukon. He said Toastmasters has changed the way he interacts with people, providing him leadership skills and teaching him how to run a meeting. And he’s no longer content to be a follower in his other clubs.

“It has definitely exposed me to things,” he said.

Taku Toastmasters President and Silverbow Bakery owner Jill Ramiel is working through a Toastmasters curriculum called “Speeches by Management,” which she said is helping her lead her staff more effectively. Ramiel joined the club eight years ago, when it had a healthy membership — about 30 people. Now, the club has about 16 active members, and is looking for more participants, Ramiel said. There’s something for everyone at a Toastmasters meeting, and newcomers are always welcome, she said — public speaking skills aren’t just for politicians.

“Nobody’s really a natural doing it, it’s just how much practice you’ve had,” she said. “Certain employers pay for their employees to go. People do it for personal reasons.”

Ramiel said she got involved after watching Alaskan Brewing Company’s Geoff Larson “interact all over town” for years. She wanted to be as confident as he is in front of a crowd, she said.

Now she organizes the weekly meetings of Taku Toastmasters, the oldest Toastmasters International group in Alaska, founded Aug. 1, 1949. Last Monday, 14 Taku Toastmasters attended their weekly meeting at the Federal Building. At each meeting, every member is allotted a role; the roles rotate so everyone gets experience with every job. Last week, Vice President of Education Peter Bibb led the meeting and introduced the speakers, one of whom was Bezenek, Ramiel was the time keeper and Meghan DeSloover led Table Topics, a quick question-and-answer portion that challenges members to think on their feet. All speeches and Table Topics answers are timed and evaluated. The word of the day was “delightful,” and members were encouraged to incorporate it into their speeches and Table Topics answers.

“It’s always ‘delightful’ to have Meghan as a Table Topics master because she always takes us to new places,” Ramiel said to the group after DeSloover had finished her activity, which asked several Toastmasters to speak about the best gift they ever gave or received.

In his introduction, Bibb spoke about his reason for becoming a Toastmaster. Before he joined the group, he struggled with being shy, he said.

“I was asked to step out into a place like this, and it was scary,” Bibb said.

Now he feels more confident in all he does, from preparing speeches to speaking with a stranger in the elevator, he said.

“That’s all anyone wants out of Toastmasters — to become better.”

At the end of each hour-long meeting, awards are given out for the day’s best speaker, best evaluator and best Table Topics response. A trophy is given for each, but the winners don’t take it home — rather, it is a prop used for practice accepting an award, Ramiel said.

The Taku and Valley Toastmasters clubs are always accepting new members, Bezenek said, and anyone interested should just show up to a meeting. Taku Toastmasters meets at noon Mondays in room 541 of the Federal Building, 709 W. Ninth St. Valley Toastmasters meets at 6:15 a.m. Tuesdays in the recreation hall of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, 9055 Atlin Drive.

“The more people who come to meetings, the more fun they are,” Ramiel said. “I’m always really happy after I go because I always learn something.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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