It is close to 7 p.m. on a Thursday night. In a small, fluorescent-lit room nestled high in Plaza Semanggi shopping mall in Central Jakarta, 16 and women, all in their business attire, loosen their ties and bond together over a Japanese take-out.
Huddled together, the strangers strike up conversations and become friends in a matter of minutes. Among the crowd are bankers, business executives, teachers and even university students, all taking turns putting on their name-tags.
As the clock approaches the hour, one man rises to bang a gavel on the whiteboard and all turn, putting away their food, while some take out notes from their pockets and get a pen ready.
The aroma of sweet and sour sauce still lingers in the air. The anticipation and good cheer seem palpable as members and guests are welcomed to the Essential Toastmasters Club.
Toastmasters International is a non-profit organization that began in a YMCA in California back in 1924, with the aim of making people better speakers and leaders.
Unlike other programs, however, instead of having a single instructor, the 15-20 members of the club make a critique of each other through trademark activities such as Table Topics and Ice Breakers. Today, it boasts 226,000 members in 11,500 clubs in 92 countries.
In Jakarta, the first Toastmasters Club was introduced in 1979 and since then, the movement has gained momentum and grown exponentially.
Toastmaster Ersa delivers a speech at the meeting for the Essential Club. She has been a member for four years, during which time she has traveled to take part in a speech competition and has been given her own radio show. (JP/Aparna Bansal)
Today, there are 33 clubs in the city, like the Essential Club, that meet regularly, as the members, who must all be over the age of 18, work together to improve each others’ public speaking skills.
At the Essential Club meeting, there is never a silent moment as the group is always either immersed in laughter or chatter, continually responding to the speaker with cheers or sympathetic moans, as appropriate.
It is a classroom of adults, as some members quietly whisper comments to their neighbors, while the president explains the procedure, and others take notes on the “Word of the Day” and the “Theme” written on the whiteboard.
Johan Candra, the president of the Essential Club, explains that each club has the same agenda, but a different environment. “Essential is known for being funny,” clarifies Ersa Tri Wahyuni, one of the old-timers in this club, “but there are other clubs which are more serious or competitive.”
Alistair New, a member of the Advanced Club, feels the degree of solemnity also depends on the leader of the meeting on a given day.
Other than the English clubs, there are two clubs that run in Bahasa Indonesia and one Mandarin club in Jakarta, so newcomers attend different clubs to find the one most suitable for them, in terms of language, location, speaking level and atmosphere.
Despite the differences, all the club members have one thing in common. “Toastmasters love to talk,” Ersa reveals.
In Toastmasters, each member is given a task and chance to speak, whether it is the role of speaker, evaluator, time-keeper, grammarian or to count the number of times every speaker utters an “um”, “er” or “ah”.
New members, as well as guests, are encouraged to participate in the first round, titled Table Topics, in which they are given a topic to speak about on the spot, without any prior preparation.
One member is asked to speak about the rising fuel prices, while another speaks about the Toastmasters experience. All members, however, are up to the daunting task, feeling comfortable among the casual and eager crowd here at Essential.
Next are the Ice Breakers, a series of prepared speeches. Many of these get personal, as one man recounts his determination to marry the woman he loves, despite his parents’ plans for him, and a soft-spoken woman narrates her relationship with music.
Afterward, the member assigned to be the evaluator of the particular speaker makes a critique of the speech and speaking style, though the firmness of the constructive criticism varies from club to club.
Here at Essential, the comments remain complimentary, rather than critical, an ideal atmosphere for those new to public speaking.
Monica Sugiarto, member of numerous clubs in the city including the Advanced and Kebayoran clubs, feels it is important to strike a balance between telling the other members what they do well, and providing a few comments that allow them to learn and improve.
Each speech keeps the crowd entertained, and some even transform into stand-up comedy sessions with interaction from the audience, as one woman recalls her first experience of driving underage.
However, beneath all the applause and friendly banter, there are valuable lessons to be learned. Hadid, a young banker, was actually encouraged to join Toastmasters by his workplace. “It’s part of our management strategy,” he explains.
“With Toastmasters, I can improve my English, communication and public speaking skills and deliver our (company’s) message more clearly.”
Ersa thanks Toastmasters for helping her get her own radio show as a business and communication coach. Table Topics taught her to “respond right away” — a skill that is essential to her as listeners call in with their questions. As an accounting lecturer who spends most days talking for hours, the program also taught her to listen.
She has even come to enjoy the competition aspect and the “adrenalin rush” of public speaking. Two years ago, she traveled to Penang for the Indonesia-Brunei-Malaysia Toastmasters district competition where she won 2nd place. “It was a big honor,” she remembers.
Members of the Advanced Club share similar enthusiasm for the program’s goal of making people more eloquent speakers. Alistair explains that with oratory skills, “you learn to present your ideas well, so others will follow you and you can get your way in life”.
“If you’re good in public speaking, you have the power,” agrees Monica.
The future of Toastmasters in Indonesia is looking bright today. More clubs, especially Bahasa Indonesia ones, are expected to be available in the city soon.
While the Gavel Club, a Toastmasters’ sponsored organization created for those under the age of 18 in some other countries, does not exist in Indonesia yet, numerous toastmasters are eager to start one here soon.
Meanwhile, the 33 existing clubs around the city continue to thrive and “bring people out of their cocoons… while (providing) a free audience”, as Ersa puts it.
As the hour hand approaches nine, the session at Essential wraps up with the induction of new members.
Winners of the Table Topics and Ice Breakers rounds, and the best Evaluator of the night, voted on earlier in the meeting, are called up to the front to receive recognition.
Then, the gavel hits the whiteboard again and the room begins to empty, as many head back to their children and homes, while others linger on to chat. Those who at the beginning sat quiet and reserved, now exchange polite conversation.
As Hadid explains, when it comes to speech-making, the most important thing is “self-confidence… having a strategy to remove the fear inside of us”. The Toastmasters program seems to have mastered that strategy a long time ago.
You can find a Toastmasters club suitable for you at www.toastmasters.org. Some clubs are open to all, while some require registration. There is usually a fee set for the food at meetings, as well as for the Toastmasters manuals and magazines sent from the United States. Most clubs meet either weekly or bi-weekly.
– The writer, an 11th grader at the Jakarta International School, was an intern at The Jakarta Post.