Founded in a YMCA basement in 1924, Toastmasters International was created to help young American men overcome their fear of public speaking. While groups like Rotary and the Shriners have seen their memberships slide, Toastmasters continues to thrive. Why? Joining has become a way for immigrants to hone their English and learn the etiquette of American civic and business culture—and sometimes turn it on its head.
• Most people join Toastmasters because they want to be better communicators and public speakers. I came to America from Belgium in 1975, and I was interested in what makes Americans tick.
• It’s a very simple, very structured program. Every time you prepare a speech, it focuses on a specific objective. How does your body speak? How does your voice project? Can you inspire an audience? The content may change depending on the club, but the meeting format has always stayed the same.
• The reason why people join hasn’t changed, but the people who typically join have. It used to be the good old Caucasian male—in business, in his mid-30s. Now the people attending are younger, highly diverse, and way more are women.
• Normally, you would not dare speak about graphic sex or debatable subjects, but my home club is a specialty club. We follow the Toastmaster format, but the content of our speech is sex, religion, and politics. We are not afraid of people who say, “I hate God.” We had a person who came and did a 10-minute speech on plastic surgery for the vagina. It was very interesting! We don’t judge the content; we judge the delivery.
—Nadine Nofziger, 63, operations manager (as told to Ryan O’Hanlon)