In the company of friends
“All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” So said the 19th century American poet, philosopher, and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Emerson’s case, he honed his public speaking skills during his years as a preacher, but that’s not an option available to many of us here in Ayrshire.
What we do have, right on our doorstep, is Prestwick Speechmasters Club, a speakers club that meets weekly in its hometown to help members improve their public speaking and writing skills and become more confident communicators.
This year, the club is celebrating its 50th anniversary (this included a feature on BBC Radio Scotland’s It’s a Small World, presented by Anna Massie). Prior to 1973, it had gone by the name of Prestwick Toastmasters Club since it started in 1954. (Quick history lesson: the first Toastmasters Club started in 1905 in Illinois by the state’s YMCA Education Director Ralph C. Smedley, who named the club after the role of ‘toastmaster’ at banquets. In the early 1920s, Toastmasters International was formed and by the 1970s, there were more than 60,000 members in 3,000 clubs across 41 countries.)
The first Toastmasters Club in the UK was formed in 1935 in Southport, and in May 1937 Scotland joined the organisation with its Glasgow club. In 1973, many UK clubs decided to leave Toastmasters International and form the (national) Association of Speakers Clubs. But the Prestwick club didn’t want to be affiliated with a national body due to affiliation costs that would put unnecessary financial pressure on the club, explains club secretary Wellwood Grierson, who joined in the 1990s. And so the Prestwick Speechmasters Club was born.
Today, the club is proud to be the only surviving speakers club in Ayrshire (there used to be many other clubs of its sort in the area, including Ayr, Irvine, Troon and Kilmarnock).
In our increasingly online world, we can learn most things on our screens, enrolling in courses with just a few clicks. But when it comes to public speaking, a real-life audience makes all the difference. And at Prestwick Speechmasters, you don’t need to worry about getting a frosty reception – or, at the other end of the scale, unwarranted praise. As Wellwood points out, if someone gives a speech at a wedding they never get constructive feedback. But improvement only comes with evaluation (and everyone remembers a brilliant wedding speech, right?).
Of course, not all members join with the goal of learning how to give a memorable best man or father-of-the-bride speech. In the club’s early days, the most common reason for joining was to learn how to give presentations to the companies members worked for, Wellwood says. But things have changed since workplaces started offering that type of training to their employees. These days, members of Prestwick Speechmasters are keen to improve their public speaking skills for a variety of reasons.
“One member is going to become a captain at a golf club and wants to learn how to speak with confidence,” says Wellwood, who has recently written a book on the club’s history called 50 Years of the Prestwick Speechmasters Club. Sometimes, members have speech impediments and although practising their speaking at Prestwick Speechmasters doesn’t offer a cure, they’ve experienced an improvement in the symptoms of their disorder due to the support and feedback they received.
“Whatever your reasons for joining, it’s all about learning to relax, building confidence, and improving week by week, in the company of friends,” Wellwood says. “We pride ourselves on providing a supportive environment, where members get feedback without judgment.”
The club also enjoys social events that have nothing to do with public speaking, from dinners to their annual putting competition. Previous summer outings have included visits to David Livingstone’s birthplace in Blantyre and to the newly refurbished Burrell Collection.
Each Prestwick Speechmasters meeting follows the same format: two seven-minute speeches and one eleven-minute speech. Speech subjects are given to the members in advance to give them time to research and practice. The evening’s speeches are intermixed with topics, where the evening’s chairperson invites members to speak for two minutes on a particular topic.
“The purpose of the topics is to help members to think on their feet,” says Wellwood.
Previous topics include ‘What is your opinion on modern art?, ‘Do you prefer dogs or cats?’, ‘Should there be a bridge/tunnel across the Irish Sea?’ and ‘Should there be a space station at Prestwick Airport?’ Sometimes, there’s no question – once, the direction was simply, ‘talk to us about butterflies’.
Wellwood reveals that on one occasion, a member was asked to talk about bats, and the audience anticipated a two-minute speech on the nocturnal winged animal but instead was presented with a talk on cricket bats.
“It certainly keeps our minds active – and us on our toes!” he says.
Surprises aside, the members clearly learn a lot from listening to speeches on a wide range of topics. Religion and politics are given a wide berth (for obvious reasons), but everything else is fair game. Following each speech, the evening’s evaluator (often a more experienced member, although every member takes their turn in this role) gives their feedback, touching on aspects like volume, relevance, hand gestures, and engagement with the audience, and highlighting areas that could do with improvement.
Generally, the club members are men of retirement age, but Wellwood – who names Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as two of his personal speakers of note – stresses that everyone is welcome and is particularly keen to recruit women and younger people. In Wellwood’s experience, some people are natural speakers, but those who aren’t are encouraged to simply come along and give it a go, with the reassurance that they’re going to be listened to with only good intentions from their audience, and that any mistakes are valuable learning opportunities.
“Many members are very nervous when they first join, but end up wishing they’d come along sooner,” he says.
In other words, if becoming a better public speaker appeals to you, don’t hesitate to get along to a meeting.
Prestwick Speechmasters Club meets at 7.30pm every Monday evening at St. Ninian’s Episcopal Church Hall, Prestwick. The final meeting of 2023 is on Monday 11th December, then the club will break for Christmas and New Year.
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