Every week, Barus and Holley 190 bears witness to a series of unusual lectures — on topics that have included toys, childhood crushes and a search for racial identity.
But the lectures aren't part of any University-offered course in Modern Culture and Media or American Civilization. They're just part of a typical Wednesday night for the Brown Noise Toastmasters, a newly formed club that helps its members improve their public speaking and leadership skills.
"This club is not just about getting your speech right," said Tan Nguyen '10, the Brown Noise's president. "You learn leadership skills. You learn to build your confidence. You learn how to interact with people, and I think that is very important."
The concept of a Toastmasters club is not a new one. According to Toastmasters International's Web site, the organization was founded more than 80 years ago by Ralph Smedley, the educational director at a California YMCA. Smedley noticed that many of the young men who frequented the Y would benefit from training in speech. At the time, a "toastmaster" was the person who proposed toasts and introduced speakers at parties and banquets, so Smedley chose it as the organization's name.
Anyone over the age of 18 is welcome to join Toastmasters groups, which are based in universities, companies and local communities, and the nonprofit organization now has almost 250,000 members worldwide. It includes among its successful alums governors, astronauts and an Olympic gold medalist. Especially well-known former Toastmasters include Chris Matthews, Leonard Nimoy, Debbie Fields and Tim Allen.
Before each meeting, all of the club's members receive an agenda — with activities scheduled down to the minute — outlining the evening's events.
Each Brown Noise meeting starts the same way: From 8 p.m. until 8:04, the Toastmaster of the evening, who acts as an emcee, welcomes the club's members and outlines the night's activities. Last Wednesday, Nguyen acted as the club's Toastmaster and introduced the evening's theme: childhood.
"Fellow Toastmasters, great to see you all back," Nguyen said at least week's meeting. "I always like to start with a quote, a really inspiring quote I like. This quote is actually from Tom Robbins. He said, ‘It's never too late to enjoy childhood.'"
After Nguyen's introduction, a few members launched into speeches — some prepared, some unrehearsed — about their pasts.
In the first type, "you actually have time to think about your topic, to think about how you want to deliver it, and then you deliver it in four to six or five to seven minutes," Nguyen said. In "impromptu speech, or Table Topics … a Table Topic master will give you a topic. Then you will have one to two minutes to hold your own stage."
At the end of every meeting, speakers receive feedback on their speeches from other Toastmasters. They also learn how many times they used filler words such as "um" or "ah" during the course of the night from the "Wizard of Ah's" — a Toastmaster who keeps track of extraneous words during each person's speech.
"Before I joined this, I didn't talk much, and when I heard people say, ‘Um,' I thought, I'm not one of those people that use filler words," said Mandana Ali '13, last week's Wizard of Ah's. "But now that I've joined this, and now that I do talk more, I do use filler words. And this should really help me to not use them myself."
The night's speakers included Taylor Daily '13, who delivered a speech about the role Toastmasters has played in his life up to this point — while Daily was growing up, his father was elected president of Toastmasters International.
Though Daily recalls being a bored child suffering through Toastmaster conventions and stuffing envelopes for hours to aid in his father's presidential campaign, he said he couldn't help but attend the group's first meeting after he read about it in Morning Mail.
"I thought if that many people direct their energy to an organization with that much enthusiasm, there has to be something good about it," Daily said.
The Toastmasters didn't get their start on College Hill until early last academic year, according to Megan Lemmerman '12, the Noise's vice president of education. Jimmy Tasso '09 and Jeff Wardyga '08 decided to start a chapter at Brown after they completed a summer internship at the defense contractor Raytheon, where they participated in the company's Toastmaster club.
"I brought Toastmasters to Brown because we had realized the benefits of the program when we were interns at Raytheon," Wardyga said. "Whether it's speaking with your family or speaking with a co-worker or at a meeting or in front of hundreds of people, our oral communication skills are very important."
Only about seven students showed up to the first few meetings of the Brown Noise, which borrows its name from a South Park episode about flatulence, said Alec Brownridge '12, the group's secretary. It wasn't until the spring that the club drew enough members to be recognized as an official organization by the Undergraduate Council of Students.
Though the club doesn't have any faculty advisers, it does have two adult mentors: Barry Bainton '63 and Tom Nyzio, both members of community Toastmaster clubs.
"As mentors, we don't get in the way of what they do," Nyzio said. "We just attend the meetings and help out as necessary."
Right now, one of the Noise's main goals is to attract new members in order to maintain its official status at the University, Lemmerman said. Club officers also would like to balance the male-female ratio, which is heavily skewed at the moment — only a handful of Brown's Toastmasters are female.
Several of the club's members said they have noticed a marked improvement in their oral communication skills since joining the Brown Noise.
"I've been doing interviews for jobs since I came to Brown, and I'm so much more confident now," Nguyen said. "I use silence more effectively and create more of an impression on interviewers."
Many involved in the organization believe Toastmaster clubs provide an especially valuable opportunity for college students to improve the skills they'll need to land a job after graduation.
"The people in these clubs are about to enter the workforce," said Paul Sterman, an associate editor for Toastmaster Magazine. "And I think when they learn leadership and communication skills, it really gives them a head start in the real world as well as in their studies."