One of Kitimat’s oldest clubs is finding ways to continue their meetings amidst COVID-19 restrictions.
The Nechako Toastmasters club has been around since the early 1950s, when Kitimat was first establishing itself as a town.
“Nechako Toastmasters was one of the first clubs that actually evolved here,” Nechako Toastmasters member, Eleanor Kendall, said. “At that point in time, the club involved only men.”
Women were not allowed into the group until the early 1970s, but they’ve been a key part of the group and the organization ever since.
The goal of Toastmasters is to practice public speaking and increase communication and leadership skills.
“We listen, we listen to the others that are speaking, we observe our impressions on what they are saying, and we give feedback on that,” Kendall said.
Wanda Shaw, Nechako Toastmasters’ President, said that, throughout her years with the Toastmasters, she’s realized how connected communication and leadership skills are within the group.
“I think it’s important that people just don’t think that those two things are isolated,” Shaw said. “By working on one, you inherently work on the other and there’s lots of opportunities to work on communication and leadership.”
However, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, the group has had to find another way to practice their public speaking, communication, and leadership without actually getting together. Because of this, their meetings have gone virtual.
“You’re looking at a computer screen and you’re not standing up in front of people,” Kendall said. “That, and you have in your meeting somebody who’s from Calgary, somebody who’s from Edmonton, and sometimes as far away as the United States, who will say that they’d like to come into your meeting.”
Other Toastmasters members from around the continent and the world who will join other groups’ meetings to switch up their group and get more practice with speaking, Shaw said, so going virtual has actually made it easier for people from around North America and the world to attend different group’s meetings.
“Any Toastmaster from any club is welcome to attend any other club,” Shaw said. “So that part, in a way, COVID has really opened up the doors for people and it’s a nice way to link.”
Kendall and Shaw said that many of the changes they’ve made for COVID-19 restrictions have been fairly positive, such as the lessened pressure from not standing directly in front of other people in-person, especially for more beginner members.
“It doesn’t take the challenge away, of public speaking, but it actually makes it a little bit easier in the sense that you are talking to a computer screen instead of in person,” Shaw said. “So, for people who are real beginners, it’s a good way to ease in to public speaking if they want to do it virtually.”
“In that sense, people think a virtual meeting isn’t as good,” Shaw added, “but in some ways it’s actually better because it is more encompassing of people overall.”
In terms of negative impacts, Kendall and Shaw said technical difficulties can arise, it’s a bit less practice for more experienced members, and mostly just missing out on physically being together and enjoying each others’ conversations and company in-person.
However, they’re still able to get the same communication and leadership skills out of the meeting, which they said is all that really matters.
“Starting at the beginning, there were lots of shaky knees and hesitation about standing up in front of people and speaking,” Kendall said. But Kendall has been a member of Toastmasters for over 25 years and said it’s since gotten to the point where she “actually was able to speak up in front of probably thousands of people” a few years ago for a presentation.
Shaw, who’s been a member for three years, said her favourite thing about Toastmasters is learning to control her fear of public speaking and use it to make herself a more confident speaker and presenter.
“The best thing that I’ve learned is to turn my fear into confidence and to use my fear rather than let it take over,” Shaw said. “So, I’ve learned to — not totally, I’m still learning — but I’ve learned to use my fear for my speeches and to kind of ride that fear and it makes me more confident in speaking, as well as presenting.”
Kendall and Shaw are glad they are able to continue meeting with modern technology, and are grateful for the experiences and skills that Toastmasters has given them and hope they can share that experience with others.
“I think one of the largest fears in the world is public speaking,” Kendall said, “but it doesn’t have to be.”