The meeting starts with a joke, then a game of table topics begins.
Before they speak, each participant sees the question for the first time; 10 seconds later, they look up and begin a one to two and a half minute speech on their greatest strength. All audience members are quiet and attentive while the speaker goes, knowing and appreciating what they are doing.
“I was nervous, but it was fun, it’s relaxed, comfortable, first time attendee and table topics participant Hollie Hill said. But she admitted she was “glad it was over.”
This was the first meeting this semester of the Word Mill, the Mills College chapter of Toastmasters International.
“One of the things about Toastmasters and the reason why I think it is so great to have a student base is, it is an informal environment where you aren’t being graded and where you can find your own voice. Finding your own voice is one of the core tenants that this college was founded on,” Vice President of Public Relations and one of the founders of the Word Mill, second year Mills MBA student Deagon Williams said.
Toastmasters is an international organization focused on public speaking and leadership skills.
“It also helps me become an effective speaker and clearly communicate in every conversation I have. Toastmasters is not just for people doing public speaking,” said Word Mill President Andre Lewis. “Ultimately, the most important thing is to be able to express yourself clearly and find your voice, and this is probably one of the best opportunities to learn without pressure with a supportive group.”
Williams, a small group of other MBA students and their friends founded the Mills chapter in February.
“I realized that I needed to have more then one voice and more than one way to speak publicly,” said Williams. “At first, it seemed very sterile, and then after going to my first meeting I realized that it was a lot of fun and that I learned a lot.”
Any member of the Mills community and any guest with a direct link to Mills is welcome to join.
“I’m hoping we grow with more of the students because it is an excellent opportunity, and we would like to see a warm and welcoming crowd for every speaker,” Lewis said.
No previous public speaking experience or ability is required.
“The first time I spoke, I was extremely nervous, and tonight I won my very first table topics contest,” said Lewis.
There are two tracks members can follow: a communication track and a leadership track. The tracks are self-paced, and members may work on one or both of them. The tracks have different levels that each contain a series of speeches that must be completed before moving on to the next level. Members choose their own topics for speeches, and the speeches build on each other, beginning with the icebreaker speech where new members speak about themselves.
“There is no fear of failure. People are encouraged to speak to find their authentic voice. There’s no right or wrong,” Williams said.
“Finding your own voice is critical so that it becomes the vehicle that you can share, becomes the vehicle to translate your education from theoretical frameworks to create reality.”
Speakers work on things such as organization, voice, body language, using visuals and choosing the right words. “That has been my one personal focus, to learn how to speak to three-year-olds, heads of state, the boardroom,” said Williams. “I want to have a diverse and effective voice.”
In addition to full speeches, games like table topics help with impromptu speaking.
“I thought it was some bad drinking game,” said Williams. “It sounded like forced frivolity. It seemed so forced, it didn’t seem like there could be anything fun about it, but I think they’re great fun because table topics can range from” talking about your affinity for peanut butter to discussing politics.”
Toastmasters members volunteer to fill different positions at meetings. Positions include a toastmaster, a grammarian, a timer, a jokemaster and evaluators. The Toastmaster leads the meeting. The grammarian listens for how often a speaker says “um,” “you know,” “ah” and other filler words. They also note if the speaker incorporated the day’s theme, word of the day or anything particularly good they may have said.
To be an official member of Toastmasters, there is a new-member fee of $20 and $27 every six months in dues. There are currently three scholarships available from the Word Mill for students. Students also do not need to be an official member to attend meetings.
The Word Mill meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Mills Hall 135.