Twanda Clark first heard of Toastmasters International 10 years ago from a colleague at a social service agency where she was employed. But it wasn't until 2009, after her children entered their teens, that she decided to join the nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs.
"At first I did what I call a 'drive-by,' " she said. "I just went to the meetings in Edgewood and listened but didn't participate because I wanted my speeches to be polished and perfect, just as I did as a child in forensics at Wilkinsburg High School."
That polished and perfect attitude won her the state forensics championship in her senior year. The win earned her a trophy and a chance to participate in the national championship, a competition in which she didn't advance to the final round.
This year, Toastmasters gave her a chance to compete again -- but she would be up against some of the world's best orators.
"At Toastmasters, I finally made my icebreaker speech at the third or fourth session," she said. "When I made the speech on how I got interested in the arts, Sallie Boggs, founder of the Edgewood Toastmasters Club and former Toastmasters division governor, told me she thought I had what it takes to enter the Toastmasters International Competition."
About a year ago, after putting her speechmaking prowess on hold for almost two years, Ms. Clark decided to come back to Toastmasters and give it her all.
"Knowing I wanted to compete, I began to work diligently," she said. "At Toastmasters, you have to give six speeches before you can compete in the International Competition. I only had the icebreaker to my credit, so I also joined the Penn Hills club in addition to the one in Edgewood to satisfy the six-speech requirement."
To prepare, she studied the Toastmasters manual, which encourages the use of new speaking techniques such as visual aids, body movement and choosing the correct tone of voice. For her five remaining speeches, she chose the topics of children in foster care, mental health issues, moving with a purpose through life, three valuable life lessons and one titled "My Gift," which focused on the importance of letting people know how much you appreciate them.
" 'My Gift' is the speech that won me the club, area and district competitions this year, which, altogether, pitted me against about 1,500 speakers," she said.
The speech also qualified her for the semifinal round of the World Championship of Public Speaking, held from Aug. 15 to 18 in Orlando, Fla. There, 86 district-level winners from around the world advanced to the semifinal round after a six-month process of elimination through club, area and district speech competitions. At the competition, the participants' five-to-seven-minute speeches were judged on the basis of content, organization, gestures and style.
"Twanda immediately captured my interest with her speech," said Judy Beck, public relations officer for District 13 Toastmasters. "She made her message personal and something everyone could relate to."
Although Ms. Clark didn't advance to the final round on her first attempt, she said she learned a lot "by competing against an amazing group of speakers from all over the world." Currently still attending Toastmasters meetings in Edgewood and Penn Hills, she said her latest speech titled "What It Means to Win" is about needing to be clear about personal goals.
"While I definitely wanted to win the international competition, I also wanted to be the best speaker I could be to inspire, motivate and educate people in such a way that they become implementers of change," she said.
While she continues to work as a child welfare professional in Pittsburgh with A Second Chance Inc., a foster care agency, in December she started a company called Youthful Expression, which aims to give at-risk youth a voice by teaching them public speaking skills.
Holder of a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Pittsburgh, where she also took graduate studies in counseling education, Ms. Clark said her hobbies are reading, attending the theater and acting from time to time with Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. As a single parent, she said raising two teenage girls also takes up a good deal of her time.
In the future, Ms. Clark said, she'd like to continue to compete with Toastmasters.
"While I didn't have an adviser or a mentor prior to the International Competition in August, I do hope to have one the next time I decide to compete," she said.
Ms. Clark's "My Gift" speech can be viewed on youtube.com.
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: email@example.com.