247 | A Toast to Public Speakers!

October 21, 2012
Sunday, 4:00 p.m.
Letter #247: A Toast to Public Speakers!


Dear Family,

Monday nights—prison is where all the fun is at! And I’m not saying that just to give proof that I really need to get out more. (A discussion on my current mental state is not on this letter’s agenda.) Monday nights are when my cellie, Tom, and I lead a class on public speaking. This is what makes my Mondays so special.

Speaking in front of a group is at the top of the list of most people’s greatest fears, surveys show, and prisoners are no exceptions. Whether tough, cocky, self-confident, or a loner, it doesn’t matter: not many guys want to speak in front of their peers. Therefore, as an extension of the business class, we decided to do something about it. I know that anyone who plans to reenter the work force, whether as an employee or a small business owner, needs to be comfortable speaking in public. Some will be involved in sales, some will look for financing, and many will need to survive awkward job interviews. All will need proficiency in fluid speaking.

Tom and I opted to fuse a college course textbook on public speaking with the meeting format used by the Toastmasters International organization. The cost to bring in Toastmasters is more than $2,000, and we haven’t found an “in” with the organization for a sponsorship. (Normally, they provide workbooks and someone to run the meetings.) Tom has participated in Toastmasters meetings in other prisons, so he was able to establish the meetings’ agenda for our version.

Every week, Tom prepares a lesson from the textbook. I take it and type it up and make the copies for the class handouts. Each Monday night, we work together to facilitate the class experience for the 15+ guys who are faithful attendees—well, Tom does the 30-minute “lecture” portion when we have time, and I just keep records, hand out responsibilities, and keep time.

Each guy gets to participate in every meeting. One is the Master of Ceremonies (called the … wait for it … Toastmaster); another brings a quote, another the Word of the Day (which guys will attempt to incorporate into their speeches); one delivers the invocation (an inspirational thought, poem, prayer, etc.); several give speeches; another prepares a “Hot Topic” for someone else (who is on the Hot Seat) to speak on for 1–2 minutes. Every member of the class must give a total of at least 10 speeches, including an admiration speech, process speeches, and various technical speeches that would make me sound smart for telling you their category titles, such as ethno-centristic (or adaptation) speeches. (Did it work?)

Every speech must take at least 3 minutes and may go no longer than 5 minutes. A peer evaluation is given on each speech, and the guys are brutally honest in their critique.

The guys take their assignments seriously, and it is incredible to see their growth week after week. Most guys in the class haven’t held jobs for long (or ever), and several have been incarcerated. (Just kidding. They’re all incarcerated.)

Outside prison, Toastmasters International memberships and awards mean much: both of our presidential candidates have been members. Of all prison groups and affiliations, Toastmasters members/graduates have the lowest recidivism (return-to-prison) rates of any group. It is inspiring to be part of something that I can see making a real difference in this group of guys. It is this fact that motivates me, encourages me.

And public speaking isn’t that bad, these guys find out. After all, they have a captive audience.