These are the Toastmasters, and twice a month they grab fear by its sweat-stained collar and they pull it in close and scream in its face.
I joined this multigenerational gang on its home turf at Write Brothers Software on Olive Avenue. There are 11 Toastmasters groups that meet regularly throughout Burbank, but the “Toastmasters 4 Writers” really spoke my language.
The first presentation was an excerpt from the stage play of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I was hooked from there out — the speeches that followed offered advice, pitched a science-fiction screenplay and revealed extremely personal stories of careers, successes and failures.
Former club president Bill Wingo had some tips for keeping New Year’s resolutions, and recalled a previous resolution to take up oil painting. His first works were stolen.
“I felt so good to think they were that bitchin’ that they ripped me off and took them home and put them on their walls,” he said, laughing.
Each competing speaker is evaluated on style, topic and presentation. Each “um” and “ah” earns you a 10-cent fine.
Wingo pulled through and kept his change.
“Bill could be talking about rocks and we’d think they were the coolest rocks in the world,” said Colin Waite, giving his colleague’s evaluation.
You don’t have to compete if you just want advice on improving your speaking style. Each speech is time-limited to help the speaker stay on topic.
In just two minutes, Leon Kucher took us on a journey to New Jersey, where a recovering gambler succumbed to an “all-or-nothing” rule that landed him in jail after winning at a casino.
The principle applies to New Year’s resolutions: write a check to a cause or personality you despise (like Rush Limbaugh or Al Gore, Kucher explained) and seal it in an envelope.
“You give it to someone you trust and if you break your resolution, she drops it in the mail,” Kucher said.
The group tried to gauge how long Kucher had been in the group — since before 1973 when women were first included in the international organization, or “since before Lincoln had the measles” according to member Pam Lane.
The Toastmasters have a well of energy that bursts from a place of self-improvement. Also pushing the meeting is the limitless energy from club president Dawn Jenkins, who constantly throws her red hair back in whole-body peals of crackling laughter.
The jokes come fast here, too — inside the speeches and outside them.
“Leon, do you have a photographic memory?” asks Karen Gerst, who heads the freestyle portion of the meeting.
“It’s a Polaroid and it fades out,” Kucher shoots back.
Under Gerst’s direction, we engage in “table topics,” short speeches delivered on the fly on topics of Gerst’s choosing.
I’m one of the first selected. She asks me to name my future autobiography and share an important chapter from it.
I won’t give anything away, since you might want to buy it on Amazon in a few years. But each time I meet groups like this, I have to reconsider what that most important chapter is — the one where I overcome a big fear, or the one in which I learn something new?
With Toastmasters, you’re always doing both.
--BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. He can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter: @818NewGuy.