MIT model explains how the brain can learn novel tasks while still remembering what it has already learned.
Whether they freeze, fidget, mumble or "um" their way through a speech, members of Toastmasters@MIT are learning to be better public speakers by routinely placing themselves before a crowd.
"The more you speak, the more confidence and skills you acquire. The more confidence and skills you acquire, the better you get. The better you get, the more you speak and so on," said the club's president, Joe Gifun, assistant director of facilities for infrastructure and special projects.
Toastmasters acquire experience and confidence through a series of exercises, each designed to develop some aspect of good public speaking. One week, a member might give a five to seven minute speech that incorporates gestures or volume shifts and an altered pace. The next week the task might be to speak without preparation on topics ranging from politics to personal anecdotes or, during the holidays, the contents of a wrapped gift. Members also act, on a rotating basis, as meeting moderators and speech evaluators.
The club's training produces good speakers, without identifiable traits.
"Once outside the meeting there is no difference that I can see between a good speaker with Toastmasters training and a good speaker without Toastmasters training," said Gifun. "As in most things we deal with in our lives, there are many avenues we can take to achieve our goals. In the realm of public speaking, Toastmasters is an answer, not the only one."
MANY REASONS TO JOIN
Though nearly all Toastmasters join the group to overcome a fear of speaking, their motivations are as varied as their backgrounds.
"I joined Toastmasters because sometimes my presentations went really well, and sometimes they did not. I wanted to understand what made them work when they did," said Gwen Acton, assistant director of the Functional Genomics Program at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research.
Others join the club with a specific goal in mind, such as to defend a doctoral thesis or prepare for an upcoming speaking engagement. That was the case for Madeline Drexler, a former Knight Science Journalism Fellow who joined to prepare for a book tour.
Mary Agnes Mullowney, an administrative assistant in ocean engineering, helped to found the club in 1992. Before that, she involuntarily closed her eyes whenever she spoke in front of an audience, and kept them closed during the entire speech. She recently eulogized her uncle in front of an audience of 600, sharing her fond memories with the other mourners--with eyes open--thanks to the help of Toastmasters.
There are also several MIT Toastmasters who are not native speakers of English. For them, the club serves the addtional purpose of enhancing language skills.
The MIT club has approximately 35 members, including graduate students, staff, researchers, faculty members, alumni, students from other universities, and people from local communities.
The club meets Fridays from 12:05 p.m to 1:05 p.m. in Room E18-021, and Tuesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Room 5-134. For more information, contact Joe Gifun at x3-4740 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 10, 2002.