PALM HARBOR — More than a dozen men and women arrived at the Centre on a Tuesday afternoon ready to talk — and maybe inspire a good laugh from their listeners in the process. Welcome to Laughter Masters, one of the newest Toastmasters clubs in Pinellas County.
Participants, ranging from college students to long-retired seniors, find humor reduces fear of public speaking and can liven up a talk.
Laughter Masters, the latest of the four Toastmasters groups meeting at the Palm Harbor center, joins the Palm Harbor club, the Tampa Bay Women Speakers and the Presenter's Paradise club, all meeting at different times during the week. The laughing edge to the newest group gives it a mark of distinction.
"There are enough dry speeches already out there," said club president Sparkie Lovejoy.
The year-old Laughter Masters follows the Toastmasters International format, which includes two speeches at each meeting, two evaluators of those speeches, and an "ah" counter, who keeps track of the interjections like "ah" that people use when filling pauses. Table topics — spontaneous little talks — are given by others at the end of the meeting.
Laughter Masters also shares the mission of Toastmasters International, which is to help members gain confidence and grow personally.
Participants gain other benefits as well, including the ability to run meetings more effectively and to think on their feet. As members find their voice, their confidence seems to grow.
Susan Endriss of Palm Harbor has learned to engage her audience. One of the two speakers of the day, she entitled her talk "Homestead Journey," a talk recounting the various homes she has lived in throughout her life.
Using broad eye contact and gesturing frequently, Endriss concluded by asking those in attendance to close their eyes and envision her dream home of the future. It was nestled on a beach, she said, against a backdrop of lapping waves.
Tony Santarsieri of Tarpon Springs, one of the day's evaluators, gave Endriss positive feedback. "That was a great speech," he said, "but you need to pause a little so the audience can think about what you've said."
The second speaker, Loretta Buckner of Palm Harbor, talked about making a pizza — using a metaphor for following Toastmasters procedures. You build from a crust of basic rules, she said, and conclude with the sauce, the addition of humor.
Buckner, a Toastmaster for four years, said she has learned to put her thoughts together in a coherent form. Her speech was well-received.
"You delivered your speech in an engaging way," said Frank Francomano, the second evaluator. "You had everyone wondering what your next joke would be."
Buckner admitted public speaking wasn't always this easy for her.
"I joined because I wanted to overcome the fear of speaking," she said. "I now use some of the skills I've learned to teach yoga."
Fear is a common emotion Toastmasters struggle to overcome.
"I had to get over the fear of embarrassment," said Lovejoy of her first Toastmaster experience. "It's a factor at the beginning, but people get over it pretty quickly."
Jeff Daily, a franchise broker from Ozona, had been a member of Laughter Masters for just one month, but he was already serving as treasurer of the club. His motivation was a new job.
"I recently took on a job that requires me to give group presentations," he said, "and this is a positive environment in which to learn and practice public speaking."
Others in attendance admitted to coming for the camaraderie, the opportunity to meet new people, a chance to learn to be more spontaneous in speaking and, for some, just a chance to be heard.
Lisa Seward of Clearwater, a member of both Laughter Masters and the Tampa Bay Women Speakers, learned that she can be funny.
"I knew I had humor," she said, "but I never knew I could get storytelling, gestures and expressions to all come together in a humorous way."
"Toastmasters lets the greatness in you out," says Lovejoy. "A person doesn't have to have any goal in mind other than enjoyment."