The Hill's own Catos

In the heyday of Jerry Seinfeld’s standup comedy, he would quip that Americans are so afraid of public speaking, they’d rather be the one in the casket at a funeral than the one giving the eulogy.

This near-universal anxiety is what brings two groups of staffers and other Hill-based workers — one on the House side and one on the Senate side — to lunchtime meetings of Toastmasters International every other Friday. The 80-year-old organization is dedicated to fostering public speaking and leadership ability in its members.

The clubs, each about 20 members strong, draw personal-office and committee staffers, as well as employees of trade associations, the Library of Congress, the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District and Congressional Research Service, among others.

patrick g. ryan
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) joined Toastmasters as a Marine.

For voluntary meetings of only 10-15 people, the sessions seem excessively formal and disciplined to the outsider. Each meeting is gaveled to order by the “toastmaster” of the day, who then introduces subsequent presenters and speakers.

Each is welcomed to the lectern with a handshake and concludes to a hearty, self-esteem-boosting round of applause.

But Toastmasters clubs on the Hill weren’t always so regimented. In fact, the organization didn’t come to the Capitol until 1968, when the group’s Capitol Hill Club was formed. At that time, Toastmasters was still a restricted, male-only organization. Meeting in a House dining room, the group of mostly high-level staffers established a running liquor tab, which was soon overextended.

Despite its old-boys reputation (or perhaps because of it), Toastmasters enjoyed a hearty backing from members of Congress right from the start. Rep. William Henry Harrison (R-Wyo.) read the charter of the Capitol Hill Club into the Congressional Record. He said Toastmasters is “devoted to the proposition that people who have the common objective of learning to speak in public and to think on their feet can help each other in attaining these goals.”

One of the early members of that group was Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who first joined Toastmasters as a Marine in Quantico, Va., and was persuaded to join the new chapter when he first came to Washington as an aide to Sen. Frank Carlson (R-Kan.).

“If you happen to think you’re a hot-dog speaker, those Toastmasters will take the mustard off you,” Roberts told The Toastmaster magazine when he was in the House in the 1980s.

In the early 1970s, Sen. Clifford Hanson (R-Wyo.), a longtime Toastmaster himself, signed on as the original sponsor of a U.S. Senate Club, leaving the Capitol Hill Club to serve the House side.

jeff dufour
Tom Carr of the Congressional Research Service delivers a speech at the Toastmasters’ annual soapbox meeting outside the Capitol.

Hanson helped charter the Senate Club specifically as a coed organization, even before Toastmasters International allowed women to become official members.

With two groups now well-established, some members go between them for variety, or to increase their comfort zones. Some House staffers attend meetings on the Senate side and vice versa. Sometimes people “don’t want to do Toastmasters in front of their colleagues,” said Christine Hanson, deputy press secretary for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who has been attending meetings of the Senate Club for about a year.

It’s easy to see why. Although club officers take pains to keep the embarrassment factor to a minimum, the potential for criticism looms large.

New members receive a manual provided by Toastmasters that includes 10 speech projects. Each member delivers roughly one per month. In addition, each meeting includes “table topics,” impromptu speeches of one to two minutes on a surprise subject.

For every speech, the speaker is assigned a dedicated evaluator to assess flow, linkage of thoughts, achieving the goal of the speech and reliance on notes. In addition, other club members are assigned to count “ums,” “ahs” and other such verbal ticks, and to time each speech.

At the conclusion of a talk, speakers may be gently corrected on all sorts of rhetorical foibles, from shifting their weight from side to side to walking back and forth behind the lectern rather than in front to going over or even under the specified time.

Such a trial by fire isn’t only for novices. Hanson is a veteran of high school and college debate competitions. She majored in rhetoric and now teaches public speaking at George Washington University in the evenings. Still, she said,

Toastmasters lets her “brush up on my own skills” while making her a better teacher.

Kathryn Allen of the Capitol Hill Club, an aide to Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), has traveled around the country giving motivational speeches to high school and college students. Yet she was hesitant when club members “conned” her into competing in a humorous speech competition this fall. “They knew I had not given humorous speeches before and wasn’t extremely comfortable with the idea,” she said.

But that didn’t stop her from taking first place at the club, area and division levels, extending to most of metropolitan Washington, with a speech about her adopted sister from Russia.

Reflecting on the experience, her comments reveal the somewhat obsessive nature of Toastmasters’ rhetoricians. She said next time she hears a humorous speech, she’ll “probably be sitting there picking the technique apart in my mind, trying to figure out how he achieved the humorous effect.”