Almost two years ago, I was doing my normal morning routine at a coffee shop in Canal Park: grab a coffee, sit with a friend or two, and chat for a while before starting the day. Another routine I had there was perusing the corkboard for anything of interest. That day back in March 2019, I saw a flyer advertising an open house for Toastmasters International that was going to be held a few days later at the Duluth Public Library.

Toastmasters. I was familiar with the organization. Started back in the 1920s to help people speak better in public. I had my own experience with public speaking, from giving military briefings, talking to an audience on behalf of a congressman, acting in a play, or BS’ing my then-wife. I was comfortable speaking in front of others, but I knew I could always improve. So, I went to the open house, hosted by Duluth Club 1523 (one of several in the city).

It was an eye-opening experience. It wasn’t just about speaking properly without those filler words that bedevil all of us — like “ah,” “um,” and “so” — or speaking in a timely manner. It was about being a productive, confident member of the community; developing leadership skills; conducting meetings; planning programs; and working on committees. And having a fun time with people of different backgrounds but with a common purpose.

A typical meeting involves one or two speeches and a segment called “Table Topics,” where volunteers give short, impromptu speeches and evaluations on content, presentation, time, grammar, and, of course, filler words. Feedback is constructive. Fun is encouraged.

At the open house, I met other curious visitors, veteran club members, and others who had only a few months under their belt, like Yana Stockman, a transition life coach who came from Ukraine. Hers was an interesting story. With English as a third language, she wanted a venue to practice and receive constructive feedback, so she joined Toastmasters.

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“After a few months of meetings, my speech deliveries felt much less anxious and much more like second nature,” she said. “I did not expect to receive the enormous amount of benefits that came with my Toastmasters membership: access in education, a worldwide network, and leadership-building opportunities.”

Within a few months, Yana was elected president of Club 1523. By that time, I had become a member. Soon after that I became vice president for public relations. Many of us also participate in speech contests, held each year at all levels and in several categories. Our club, meeting at Historic Old Central, was growing.

Then COVID-19 came along.

Ironically, despite the challenges of the pandemic, it equally offered opportunities for Toastmasters clubs around the world. Club 1523 wasn’t alone in learning how to conduct a meeting and give speeches via Zoom. It has been another fulfilling learning experience. In addition, many members, myself included, saw the opportunity to participate in meetings in other countries like Canada, Germany, South Korea, and Ukraine, experiencing other cultures but also seeing how other clubs operate. It has added new meaning to the organization’s name, Toastmasters International.

As the pandemic rages on, the urge to isolate and hunker down socially is still acute. For the past year, I have found ways to curb those urges — Toastmasters being one of them. There’s just something appealing about meeting with friends and strangers virtually and having mutual fun fretting over “ums” and “ahs.”

Dave Boe is a communications professional who lives in Duluth. He encourages anyone interested in Club 1523’s next open house on Thursday, Jan. 28, to email him at dsbgroup66@gmail.com.