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Toastmasters Square Off in Public Speaking Competition

  • Susan Cummings, of Bernardston, Mass., right, is interviewed by contest chair Shauna Green, of Nashua, N.H., before winners were announced in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. Cummings was named the winner of the speech contest. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Susan Cummings, of Bernardston, Mass., right, is interviewed by contest chair Shauna Green, of Nashua, N.H., before winners were announced in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. Cummings was named the winner of the speech contest. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chief judge Claude Peltz, of Windham, N.H., speaks with ballot counters Mary Mello, of Montepelier, Vt., and Edwin Sause, of Brattleboro, Vt., while votes were tallied  in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Chief judge Claude Peltz, of Windham, N.H., speaks with ballot counters Mary Mello, of Montepelier, Vt., and Edwin Sause, of Brattleboro, Vt., while votes were tallied in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., right, speaks with Helen Fu, of Westford, Mass., after Fu gave her speech in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. McCrory is part of a club based in Randolph, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., right, speaks with Helen Fu, of Westford, Mass., after Fu gave her speech in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. McCrory is part of a club based in Randolph, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Susan Cummings, of Bernardston, Mass., right, is interviewed by contest chair Shauna Green, of Nashua, N.H., before winners were announced in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. Cummings was named the winner of the speech contest. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Chief judge Claude Peltz, of Windham, N.H., speaks with ballot counters Mary Mello, of Montepelier, Vt., and Edwin Sause, of Brattleboro, Vt., while votes were tallied  in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., right, speaks with Helen Fu, of Westford, Mass., after Fu gave her speech in the Toastmasters International divisional speech competition in White River Junction, Vt., on April 26, 2014. McCrory is part of a club based in Randolph, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

White River Junction — Near the end of halftime of Toastmaster International’s public-speaking contest for Vermont and southern and western New Hampshire on Saturday morning, Chairwoman Shauna Green surveyed the audience in the conference room at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, cleared her throat, and called for order.

“Toastmasters!” Green announced, microphone-free. “We love to talk, I know, but we need you to take a seat right now. Check your real-world connection, and make sure it’s disconnected.”

That done, Toastmaster Carl Russell — a farmer and a Bethel selectman in the real world — pulled from a small pile of papers the secret “table topic” on which three contestants waiting outside would deliver off-the-cuff speeches of no less than one minute and no longer than 2½ minutes: “What is your life going to be like when you retire?”

Accompanied by a sergeant at arms, Becky Trip of the Amherst, N.H.-based Souhegan Leaders and Speakers club of Toastmasters entered the room first, heard the question, and took a deep, meditative breath before imagining aloud how she would be helping her husband and signmaking-business partner start a training program for aspiring signmakers, and spend more time with the children and grandchildren.

Enter next, after a minute’s interval, Erwin Cohen, an engineer and co-founder of the Big Blue Toasters club at IBM in Essex Junction, Vt.

After listening to the recitation of the topic question with arms limp at his sides, he opened with his recollection of the “crystallizing moment” a year ago when he opened an envelope in his mailbox to find “a white and red card, and on it, four little letters: AARP,” and meditated aloud on the benefits of impending geezerhood, among them the free doughnut that AARP members receive with a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

With time running out, Cohen concluded with the line that would clinch him the Division G title and propel him to next month’s District 45 championship in Portland, Maine, where he’ll face Toastmasters from around northern New England and most of Atlantic Canada: “I’ve been liking the warmer weather lately,” Cohen said.

“I want to go to the beach, watch the sunset, go to bed early, get up and watch the sunrise. I’ll take my little white and red card, and enjoy the rest of my day, with my dear.”

Welcome to Toastmasters on steroids. Or at least on caffeine …

“This is the first of these I’ve come to view,” said Russell, who with wife and Earthwise Farm and Forest partner, Lisa McCrory, belongs to Toastmasters International’s Randolph-based River View Community Speakers.

“I’m not sure it’s something I’d ever try. We joined more for the community leadership aspect, improving our skills and helping others develop theirs. At the farm, we deal with the public. We’re educating people. At our level, it’s direct communication with the public.”

At the contest level, think a cross between the National Spelling Bee and a Dale Carnegie course. Toastmasters take the communication skills they develop within their clubs and compete first in their areas — River View and Toast of the Valley, which serves Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction, are in Area 15, one of three areas in Division G — then their divisions, and finally their districts.

In addition to “table topics,” three winners from each area advanced to Saturday’s Division G competition in International Speech, where stage actress and author Susan Cummings of the Brattleboro-based BrattleMasters qualified for Portland with her rumination on rebounding from and reconciling with breast cancer. If she wins the district title next month, she qualifies for the Toastmasters International world championship in Malaysia.

“It really amazes me that this is going on all over the world today,” Cummings said. “They’re all doing it right now. It blows my mind.”

Now in its 89th year, Toastmasters counts 282,000 members in 122 countries, according to Scott Green, president of the Nashua-based MerriMaster Toastmasters in Area 7. Russell and McCrory said about a dozen members come to River View’s twice-a-month gatherings at Vermont Technical College from the Randolph, Bethel, Royalton, Tunbridge and Chelsea area.

Toast of the Valley has added “half a dozen members in the last four or five months,” said the club president, Tom Schones.

Area 15 Governor Sharon Littlefield, who oversees both Upper Valley clubs as well as BrattleMasters and clubs in Rutland, Berlin, Vt., and Montpelier, said that she finds the skills she learns at Toastmasters helpful in her work as a clinical secretary at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“It’s really helped me slow down my speaking, making myself clear, especially when I’m on the phone with people so much,” Littlefield said. “And it helps in everyday life.”

As for contest life, Erwin Cohen said the support and advice he receives in practice from members of Big Blue Toasters “gets rid of a lot of the anxiety” of higher levels of competition.

“Coming in today, I thought, ‘It couldn’t be nerves,’ ” Cohen concluded. “ ‘It must be the coffee.’ ”

Editor’s note: Toast of the Valley meets at West Lebanon’s Kilton Public Library on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month, at 6 p.m. River View Community Speakers gets together at Vermont Technical College’s Vermont Enterprise Center the first and third Thursday of the month, at 6:30 p.m. David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or at 603-727-3304.