Toasting to 40 years: Bemidji Toastmasters adapts, helps members speak out

The Toastmasters have been a staple in the Bemidji club scene since it was chartered on Jan. 1, 1981. Local club members are gearing up to celebrate the club’s 40th anniversary with the ringing in of the new year.

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Some members and guests at the Dec. 15 Bemidji Area Toastmasters meeting. Screenshot from Zoom.

BEMIDJI – It’s unusual for someone to want to speak publicly of their own volition.

This sentiment is so widely accepted that Jerry Seinfeld coined it in an oft-told joke -- the average person attending a funeral would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.

But that’s not the case for the members of Toastmasters, a club built on public speaking and self-improvement.

The Toastmasters have been a staple in the Bemidji club scene since it was chartered on Jan. 1, 1981. Local club members are gearing up to celebrate the club’s 40th anniversary with the ringing in of the new year.

The club boasts a supportive friendly atmosphere to help both beginning speakers and advanced ones develop and hone their presenting skills. Members meet weekly on Tuesdays at noon, currently over Zoom. Prior to the pandemic, the group met at the Bemidji Public Library.


What’s the draw?

People join the group for a multitude of reasons. When asked at the Dec. 15 meeting, one man said he used to be talented in high school and college speech, but after an important presentation didn’t go over well, he felt like he should sharpen his skills and joined Toastmasters. One woman said she was tired of being told she spoke too softly and wanted to learn to project, hence, Toastmasters.

“I joined Toastmasters because I wanted to learn how to share a joke without losing control of what my punchline was. My husband was such a good storyteller that I thought, I’ve got a lot to learn,” Carolyn Ballard, Bemidji Area Toastmasters Club president said. “That was my initial reason, but there have been so many reasons why I stuck it out. Just the self-confidence and the leadership skills and the personal development, it’s just one huge package.”

Many members touted the rapid personal growth they’ve experienced and were also willing to laugh at their past speaking mistakes.

“I joined Toastmasters because I was saying “okay” too many times,” member John Eggers said. “I haven’t said “okay” since. Well, maybe a few times.”

Laughing at past mistakes soon became the theme of the entire Tuesday meeting. Bryan Wilburn, Cass County Toastmasters Club President was a guest speaker during the meeting, with a speech titled, “Laughing at me is easy,” which was both humorous and addressed how Toastmasters could use humor in their future speeches.

“How do you prepare to give a humorous presentation on a format where you will get zero audience feedback and if they are laughing it’ll probably be in their own homes and they’ll probably have their mics muted and you’ll have no idea if it’s actually funny?” he joked about the impending speech held virtually. “Well, you do the best you darn can.”

Wilburn said he initially joined Toastmasters three and a half years ago after having a hiatus from public speaking, “to see that I could still do that and do it effectively. I feel like Toastmasters has absolutely been helpful for that -- because how many of us are just going to speak in front of people on a regular basis?”

Bemidji Area Toastmasters Club Coach Laura Lobo described Wilburn as a “bit of a regional celebrity” as he won the Toastmasters District 78 Contest for 2020.


Sitting in on a meeting, the supportive energy in the “room” is palpable. Lots and lots of encouragement came in the form of silent applause from people on mute after the speakers finished.

“It’s a very supportive and positive environment,” Lobo said. “That’s one of the best things about Toastmasters is that it helps anyone at any level.”

“Whether you are looking to learn how to facilitate better meetings at work, or wow the audience at your next conference, Toastmasters can be a great way to help you become a dynamic and articulate speaker,” their local website says. Their website also claims if you visit a Toastmasters meeting, “you’re sure to be welcomed by smiles.” This certainly rang true sitting in on a meeting on Dec. 15.

Moving online

“As much as possible the Zoom environment is simulating the real club environment,” Lobo said.

This also rang true, although Ballard mentioned it takes, “a whole new set of skills to speak to an iPhone screen and have the same effect.”

The meeting started out just like any other community club meeting. Attendees stood and recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag, although each in their own respective living rooms, kitchens or offices.

Attendees can be chosen to wear a variety of different hats during the meeting -- all of them “masterful” -- the Table Topics Master, Toastmaster, Grammarian, and the Evaluator.

The Grammarian provides the word of the day. On this particular Tuesday, it was prehensile, which means to grasp. Members were encouraged to use it in their speaking during the meeting.


The Toastmaster is the most visible position and acts as an emcee.

Lobo timed the speakers and let them know it was time to stop via her changing Zoom backgrounds. Green meant they met the minimum time requirements, yellow meant they were getting close to the maximum, and red meant to wrap it up.

Another position is the Evaluator, which Wilburn called “the most beneficial part of Toastmasters,” as they are the person who provides feedback to the speakers.

Wilburn said more than just the meeting structure must be considered when moving to an online platform -- speakers also have to be aware of whether or not to pause for laughter if people are muted, consider their body language, and framing of themselves in the webcam.

“In a normal presentation you might actually prepare and think about where am I going to be on the stage and move about, obviously you’re not going to really move that much, you have to stay within the camera,” he said.

Cultivating interest

The group’s membership has fluctuated quite a bit over the years. Currently, a hard push is underway to drive up membership. Since the beginning, the enrollment numbers have ebbed and flowed -- but the club is actively seeking new members to coincide with their 40th anniversary year.

“The club goes up and down in membership -- sometimes it’s really up in membership and active, and sometimes it just kind of hangs on by a thread,” Lobo explained. “With COVID and not being able to meet, it’s tough getting people in the door.”

The club meets at noon on Tuesdays, over Zoom. You can find more information about Toastmasters online or on their Facebook page.


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Bryan Wilburn addresses the Bemidji Area Toastmasters club on Dec. 15. Screenshot from Zoom.

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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