LANSING, Ill. (July 18, 2023) – Sharon Giles once had a stutter. Decades later, she’s a now a “Distinguised Toastmaster,” the highest honor given by the Toastmaster International program — and she’s helped others find their own voices.
Needless to say, she doesn’t stutter anymore.
Joining and growing
Giles currently participates in two Toastmasters clubs, one local club based in the Chicago area and an international club based in California.
Giles joined Toastmasters with her husband years ago when they saw an ad in the Southtown Star newspaper for a “Speechcraft” program that promised to improve public speaking skills.
After graduating from the 10-week program, the couple started their own Toastmasters club. As Giles’ husband began to travel as part of a storytelling group, Giles would often go with him, meaning the Toastmasters club dissolved.
“My husband is traveling with other people — I gotta stop Toastmasters and travel with him!” Giles said, “So I did get out of Toastmasters and I came back in 2003.”
In 2003, Giles was working at a law firm in downtown Chicago when the HR department wanted to create a Toastmasters club to help motivate employees and teach leadership.
“Someone said, ‘Oh Sharon’s been in Toastmasters!’ So they said, ‘Well, she can lead one here,'” Giles said.
Ever since, Giles has worked her way through various clubs and iterations of the program and now boasts the title of Distinguished Toastmaster.
How Toastmasters works
The goal of Toastmasters International is to help people become better speakers, communicators, and leaders. A standard Toastmasters club consists of around 20 members, and meets regularly, often once or twice a month. Since the pandemic, some Toastmasters clubs — like Giles’ — continue to meet virtually.
At each meeting, members take on roles and give speeches. Roles include Toastmaster of the Day, “Ah” Counter, Grammarian, Timer, Evaluator, Table Topics Master, and General Evaluator.
The “Ah” Counter keeps track of filler words used by the Toastmaster of the Day, to help improve speaking and coherence. The Grammarian helps members expand the group’s vocabulary and calls attention to words used well throughout the meeting. The Table Topics Master presents speaking topics and invites club members to address them on the spot. Speakers at each meeting benefit from the evaluation of fellow club members.
Each Toastmaster club is unique, and meetings are free for guests to observe. Those looking to get involved will pay $20 upfront and a $45 fee every six months to be part of a club. Some clubs are specifically linked to a business or organization that is looking to increase morale and produce leadership and public speaking skills in its employees.
Beyond the basic club level of involvement, Toastmasters members can take classes and work on projects to increase their skills and rank, as Giles has done.
Though already at the highest rank of Toastmasters, Giles continues to develop new skills as as part of the Toastmasters Pathways program. The Pathways program includes topics such as Dynamic Leadership, Engaging Humor, Motivational Strategies, and others. Each of the 11 programs includes five tiers: mastering fundamentals, learning your style, increasing knowledge, building skills, and demonstrating expertise.
Currently, Giles is close to finishing the Innovative Planning program, and is developing plans for her final project.
“I’m stalling only because I don’t know if I want to do a blog or a website,” Giles said. “In order to get to the next level I have to complete one or the other. It’s not easy. You have to be dedicated. You have to want to do it.”
Giles said Toastmasters clubs and programs have opened doors for her in life.
“I’ve had various paid speaking engagements, keynote speaker, host workshops, as well as train the trainer. Toastmasters has been good financially as well as mentally,” she said.
Giles recommends the program to those who want to grow, both personally and professionally.
“It helps you with teamwork, decision-making, writing. And you get a sense of belonging. I think that’s why I’m still in it,” she said.
According to Toastmasters’ website there are clubs in Schererville, Park Forest, Matteson, Orland Park, and other Chicagoland locations.
Giles’ local club, the Wrightwood-Ashburn Overcomers, meets on Zoom, and she said they’re always open to visitors. The next club meeting is Saturday, July 22 at 10:30 a.m. The meeting can be joined on Zoom.
“It builds confidence, you’d be surprised how many people have something to say but they don’t speak because of their lack of confidence,” Giles said. “I can see my grandmother standing there applauding me and saying, ‘Thank you, that’s exactly what I wanted you to do.’ To share their stories. And that’s what I do.”
Giles recently shared part of her story in a small book published by the Wrightwood-Ashburn Overcomers, the Chicago Toastmasters club she’s a part of. The book is titled If We Can Do It, You Can, Too!
More information about Toastmasters International is available online at www.toastmasters.org.