When the kids arrive for the first session of Davie Toastmasters’ Youth Leadership Program, many are extremely shy — getting them to speak loud enough to be heard and for more than 30 seconds is a struggle.
Seven weeks later, these same children get up in front of their parents and give five-minute speeches or breeze through a Table Topic. For the Davie Toastmasters who have spent two months working with them, there is no prouder moment.
For the last eight summers, Davie has been running a YLP for the children of Kerala Samajam, an Indian-American social club. And while it takes a bit of work and the members who take part have to give up some summer Saturday afternoons, the club looks forward to it each year and it is a chance to do community service. It also exposes some highly motivated and intelligent young people to Toastmasters, which can only help our club and the overall organization in the future as they move into adulthood.
“The opportunity to watch the kids grow in skills and confidence, as well as the opportunity (for members) to practice both prepared and impromptu speaking skills” is what the club gets out of it, Davie President Marijke Adams said. Vice President of Education Jo Sesodia added, “Sometimes we overlook assessing the audience’s needs before giving a presentation. The Youth Leadership Program offers Toastmasters an opportunity to communicate with a much younger audience. As most of us do not work with children, the program helps us develop skills in targeting messages to diverse groups.”
And for the kids, they learn a skill that will benefit them as they move through school and into adulthood — putting aside the fear of public speaking at a young age is immeasurably advantageous.
“Expressing myself in front of people was not very comfortable and made me very nervous,” said Alisha Jithesh, who started at 11 and participated for three years. “Attending Toastmasters really helped me break that shell and seeing my mentors and peers confidently speaking inspired me to do the same. Because public speaking is something we have to often, I am glad I was able to get that exposure at a young age and even today, as a sophomore in high school, that experience is helping me a lot.”
Davie started its program in 2012. Like many clubs, Davie talked for years about running a YLP but it never went anywhere until a new member who was president of Kerala Samajam suggested we work with his club’s children, ages 8 to 14. We weren’t sure how it would go, but the program from the start has been extremely popular, reaching the 25-child limit most years with no problem. Usually, there is a waiting list.
To start a YLP, the club needs to purchase coordinator and student manuals from Toastmasters International — for 25 kids, the cost is about $100. We then appoint a volunteer coordinator and a couple assistants for the year, but they aren’t expected to do all the work. Each week, the manual lays out one or two skills the children are exposed to — vocal variety, body language and parliamentary procedure, for example. We often get other members to cover those topics. We try to get a good mix of male and female presenters so the kids will see people they relate to.
If your club is interested in starting a club, some tips we have learned over the years:
- Our first year we tried to run the program in the evening after work with two sessions per week. Big mistake. First, getting all of the presenters there after work was difficult and many times the kids were antsy and hungry. Second, two sessions per week overwhelmed the children — they didn’t get as much out of it. After that, we went to one, two-hour session per week on Saturday afternoons. It has worked much smoother and the kids have fun without being stressed.
- Work with a school, religious group, club or other organization. First, the other group can provide the children, saving you from recruitment. Kerala Samajam also arranges and pays for the community room where we hold the classes, provides snacks and water for the children and, most importantly, sends at least one adult to each class to handle any discipline problems. It also provides a level of trust for the parents. Remember, we are strangers to them and we don’t want any misunderstandings or problems, real or imagined.
- Emphasize again and again that the best speeches are stories. Like with Toastmasters, the kids start out giving an Icebreaker — theirs are 3 to 4 minutes. Many of them will want to recite facts, not give a speech — “My name is Mary. I was born on Sept. 27, 2010. I live in Davie. I go to Davie Elementary School……” You will never kill this entirely, but if you make it a point every session and gently call out violators during evaluations, it eventually gets through to most of them.
- Make sure every kid gets a Table Topic each week — it helps them get over their fear of speaking before an audience. Make them simple and open ended: “Who is your favorite teacher and why?” “What animal would you want to be and why?” “Why do you like your favorite TV show?”
- Make a big deal of the graduation ceremony. Give them diplomas. Take photos. Make sure their parents know this is for them and they should attend. As mentioned, we break the kids into two groups — half give prepared speeches and the other half get a Table Topic. We cheat a bit on the latter, giving the children a list of 20 the week before so they can think about each. That way we don’t get any kids who freeze in front of their folks. We tell the children to dress nicely — the girls will, but there will always be a few boys showing up in shorts. Don’t sweat it — some of the sloppiest hit a homer with their speech.
- After you have been doing it a few years, invite back some of the kids who have aged out to act as tutors and examples for the younger children. Ours arrive a half-hour early to work with the kids who are speaking that day and want help.
It sounds like a lot of work — and it is, though not as much as it appears. But trust us — it will be worth every minute and then some.
Terry Spencer, ACG and CLB, has been a member of Davie Toastmasters since 2007 and won the 2012 District 47 Humorous Speech Contest. He is a veteran journalist, the last 20 years with The Associated Press.