“NOW Barrie will speak about his favourite places,” said a man I’d never met before.
If my decades-dead headmaster had appeared at that moment and told me I was late for an O-level exam I’d forgotten to study for, I wouldn’t have been overly surprised.
In fact, I’d have been relieved. At least it wasn’t the nightmare about boarding a bus while wearing no trousers, or the one about inadvertently marrying a fox terrier.
I made my way to the lectern amid the applause of an audience I’d never met before, my mind devoid of ideas.
But then a strange thing happened: The sheer warmth of the welcome inspired me to deliver something pretty decent and coherent.
Such was my introduction to Thamesdown Speakers’ Club, part of a global organisation called Toastmasters International. It meets twice monthly at Blunsdon House Hotel.
“I’ve been a member for three years,” said Alan Pope, the 61-year-old business consultant who is club president, and who would later invite me to have a go. “I joined because I thought it would be a good way to get better at speaking in public and doing presentations.
“An important thing about Toastmasters is the evaluations that take place. Every speech you make is evaluated, so you get feedback on the clarity of your speech, how you stand, whether you keep to a set time, how you use your hands – but it’s all done among a group of friends.”
Member Jo Haskins, a 40-something NHS manager from Crick-lade, also emphasised this friendli- ness.
“What you get is a feeling that everybody wants you to succeed,” she said. “That’s very refreshing. “There’s also no glass ceiling for women within Toastmasters. You can come to a meeting as a single woman without it feeling like you’re coming out on the pull. “It’s a very comfortable place to be, but it’s also very challenging.
“We’re here to help you be the best.”
Joining costs £15 and then there are fees totalling £60 a year. New members are issued with project books of various types of speech, which they gradually advance through. If this sounds a bit dry, it isn’t. The subjects are well chosen and meetings are lively and fun.
Speeches at the meeting I attended covered everything from smuggling to the psychology of success.
There are regional, national and international competitions for members who want a further challenge.
The club also serves a purpose in the wider community. We’ve all listened to workplace presentations, wedding party speeches, leaving do tributes and the like, and we’ve all heard them delivered by That Poor Devil – the one who only took on the task because others were better at dodging it.
We’ve all listened to That Poor Devil’s speeches, which range from boring to irrelevant, and from embarrassing to cringeworthy but inadvertently offensive. We’ve all squirmed and wished the ground would simply open beneath everybody present, ending our collective torment.
Join the speakers club and you’ll never be That Poor Devil; you’ll be the one everybody else says is a good public speaker. And they’ll be right.
There are about 25 members, drawn from all walks of life and who value public speaking skills for a welter of reasons.
Club publicist Cyril Mannion, for example, has decades of experience of speaking to audiences of 400 or more, thanks to his former career as an airline captain. The 63-year-old, who lives in Wanborough, turned to Toastmasters to brush up on his skills for when he’s asked to speak to groups about his experiences.
Faisal Mooraby, 35, is training to become a technical analyst and lives in West Swindon. “I’ve been a member for about five years,” he said. “I was looking to improve my confidence and presentation skills. I would recommend it to everybody.”
The club meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month from 7.45pm to 9.30pm. New members are welcome to attend. The website can be found at www .toastmasters.org.