How to speak in public

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Let's face it, in terms of dread-inducing experiences, public speaking is right up there with handling reptiles, two tickets to a Phil Collins concert or going out to bat against Curtly Ambrose. After my one (and only) best man's speech, delivered with the finesse of someone who was on the run from the police, the bride's uncle came over and gave me some advice: "Your speeches will one day mature like a fine wine," he said, with a consoling hand on my shoulder.

His words still ring in my head as I sit in the upstairs room of a pub in Hammersmith, listening to Les King, President of the London Athenians Speakers club, who promises us speakers who are "powerful, poised and perceptive". Suddenly, I am introducing myself to 25 smiling faces and eliciting an encouraging round of applause. It soon becomes apparent that they clap for absolutely everything - even the bemused Scandinavian tourist and the pony-tailed man in shorts who says he has come "straight off the tennis court".

The chairman for the evening introduces the timekeeper, who sits behind three coloured lightbulbs. "I'll press green at one minute, amber at one minute fifteen and red at one minute thirty," she says, with the clipped efficiency of an air hostess. A grammarian called Nancy, whose role, she informs us, is to "look out for effective, unusual and evocative use of words", reveals the word of the week, which we must somehow weave into our speeches. "The word is surreptitious." More hearty applause.

As I sink deeper into my chair, toastmasters from the audience are called up to give impromptu one-and-a-half-minute speeches called Table Topics. A woman from the front row obliges with her "What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo?" monologue. She speaks of "fancy frog ideas" and lovers saying "Je t'aime", with wild sweeping gestures, until the red light cruelly cuts her short. A man in a bright red Hawaiian shirt leans awkwardly against the lectern, trying to answer the question "What if water ran up hills?". "D'yer like the shirt then?" he jokes, looking over hopefully to the lightbulbs.

After 12 such cameo speeches we are encouraged to vote for the best speaker using a ballot slip. The topics evaluator gives us his verdict. "Monica, a slight tendency to pace. Jim, try to use silence to your best advantage," and "Les, address your topic more seriously," he says reading out from his notes. This earns yet more applause and a short break is announced.

The first toastmasters club was started in America in 1924 by Dr Ralph C Smedley, as a way of developing communication skills among his young charges at the YMCA. Toastmasters International now boasts 8,000 clubs with 170,000 members. London alone has seven such clubs. "It provides would-be speakers with a sympathetic audience and helps increase basic self-esteem," says Athenians' President Les King during the interval.

David, who works in computers, has been coming regularly since April "to help me come out of my shell", he confesses. By attending the meetings and referring to the manual, one day he will become a Competent Toastmaster (CTM).

Four five-minute speeches follow. The finished product, Phillip Khan- Panni, CTM and motivational speaker and trainer, rehearses his San Diego World Toastmasters Championship speech on self-belief. Armed with quotes galore, he paces centre-stage like a tiger and looks every inch a winner. We sit patiently while the personal evaluators take the lectern. Keith introduced with: "An interesting fact about him is that he actually plays the organ," picks up on Colin's over-use of "tremendous", while Adam, "a keen photographer but not so keen civil servant", praises Stanley for being "a natural storyteller".

The last word, however, is left to the general evaluator who reminds us that "only 7 per cent of a speech is words, 93 per cent is putting it across in an energetic way - that's what toastmasting is all about".


London Athenians and Spartans meet Tuesdays 7pm, The Swan, Hammersmith Broadway, London (0171-353 0594)