Toastmasters: An Eclectic Circle of Flair, Confidence and Charisma-Building

What do an investment banker, a pharma company regional supervisor, a white-collar office-worker, a competitive exam-aspirant student, and a job-seeking engineering graduate all have in common? Well, for one, all of them converge at a small room at the 2nd Floor of Anam Plaza situated by South Gandhi Maidan in Patna, every Sunday at 11, whensoever possible, irrespective of their credentials and weekday routines. Hailing from diverse backgrounds and ordinarily resident and employed at varied places, the members, who range from ages 21 to 50+ eagerly await the end of the week to rendezvous with the rest of their camaraderie.

I visit them as an occasional guest out of curiosity. To my utter surprise, they mildly chastise me for referring the senior members as Sirs; “It’s TM ‘The First Name’. Please don’t call us as Sirs and Ma’ams. Just refer us by our first names, prefixed by ‘TM’ if you wish”, one of the elders stated. TM stands for Toastmaster, the titular nominal used for each member of the group. This vaguely reminded me of the term comrade, used by egalitarians as an insistent background-blind attribute-neutral form of reference and address.

The setup is so community-oriented and emphasis so much on its welcoming and credential-disregarding nature, that everyone is well-conversed in mutual first names, as if they all were intimate peers. Withstanding this and contrary to the superficial impression, they are no clique. The members are as warm and genial to outsiders, as they are among themselves, as I learned within mere minutes into the meet. Extremely polite, amiable and receptive, the group exuded a professional mannerism and yet a very intimate personal warmth. Every now and then, there’s a resounding, lasting applause, and a round of firm handshakes.

Toastmasters International is an educational NFP, that is famed for offering an integral learning experience in leadership, communication and public speaking. It is taken by thousands worldwide to sharpen their soft skills and elevate their confidence to articulate in the public. I dropped by the score and half-strong Patna chapter of this eminent international society, to learn of their week-to-week functioning. I learnt that it has had quite a phenomenal journey, starting from a handful few to a diverse 30+. Struggles ranged from finding an appropriate and optimally centrally-located hosting site and acquiring requisite assets to overcoming personal inhibitions and the inertia of prospective members.

I’m informed of the details and objectives of the session. The classroom which is used for the meet is arranged in 3 neat rows of benches and desks. The blackboard is impressed with details of the day: a rotational basis designates various members various roles. The allocation is very flexible, yet an ample level of preparedness is expected of the role-players. My name is also listed on the blackboard, among three others, listed as “guests”, casual passers-by and lookers-on, kith and kin accompanying existent members, or curious prospective and tentative members.

The session begins with address by the general session-master, conducting the stage and inviting various members to fulfill their roles and deliver their stipulated dictum in an ordered fashion at various stipulated times. With such an elaborate schedule laid out, one is not misplaced to wonder if it would be rather crammed, congested and tedious. However, the sheer enthusiasm and discipline alleviates these would-have-been, and created for an indelibly, memorable interaction. There were a vast number of roles and subroles as (multiple) evaluates, time-keeper, grammarian, ah-counter (the one who counts the stutters, stammers and long-draws, among-st others) et cetera.

Two extensive computer-based presentations were projected with intermittent rounds of prepared and impromptu timed speeches. The presentations were quite lucid and informative, owing to the articulate, convicted, multifaceted and holistic narration by the respective presenters. In the end, all participants, even the role-players and evaluates  were systematically evaluated and later mutually through a vote for the best roles and performances of the day, or rather week. Every single stage step-in and step-off are followed by hearty applause and handshakes. The semblance is exceptionally encouraging, attentive, and synergistic. The topics provided were eclectic and innovative, often simple yet challenging. Political, salacious, insensitive and uncivil digressions are explicitly prohibited.

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Feedback is the breakfast of champions”, says the supervisory in-charge of the day as the two-hour session draws to a conclusion. Positive, constructive criticism irrespective of one’s age, designation, routine  day job or social status, is the hallmark of such interactions. Everything follows a well-defined format and steers through a systematized, disciplined charted course, delineated as an International standard by the organisation. For a nominal fee, anyone can get admitted into the echelons, and progress up their own chosen, winding path of learning leadership and oratory, gaining confidence, conviction and flair in the process, and above all valuable, lasting ties and bonhomie.

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