As a toastmaster, Karthikeyan B has popped into more clubs over the last four months than he has over the previous 15 years. He has been “globe-trotting” during the lockdown participating in events hosted by 10 clubs distributed across three continents — either to present a speech or as a visiting toastmaster.

“These are virtual visits, but that doesn’t detract from the speaking experience in any way,” says Karthikeyan, and calls his presentation at the Deloitte Mexico Club the pick of the lot.

“Speaking before an entirely new audience is always challenging, and I also got the ‘best speaker award’,” reveals Karthikeyan, past president of Chennai Wordsmiths Club.

As a silver lining, the COVID-19 pandemic has broadened the horizons for many chapters of Toastmasters International across Chennai.

The geographically-defined clubs function on a hyperlocal model, usually gathering residents of a locality and its thereabouts for weekly meetings. With considerable bonding between these clubs, members would invite themselves to each other’s events.

With in-person meetings giving way to virtual meetings, the connections among Toastmasters International only got bigger. On Tamil New Year’s Day, Medley Toastmasters Club in Adyar hosted a special meeting with two other clubs — one from Sri Lanka and the other from Kerala — that was attended by more than 300 members.

“The format remains unchanged, but joint gatherings of Toastmaster clubs bring a rare flavour,” says Suganthi Periyasamy, former president, Medley Toastmasters Club.

Suganthi reveals that with the diversity that trotted alongside the collaborative exercise by three-club meetings, the choice of topics and the team buildings skills had greater variety.

The typical club meeting would feature prepared speeches, toasts and also opportunities for impromptu speaking. A great number of clubs have started hosting joint sessions to learn from each other. Inviting a speaker from an international club to review the meeting brings a new dimension to these engagements.

New features

Previously, she says, Medley Toastmasters Club would have five speeches presented by members. Now, they have pared it down to four speeches and more time is being allotted to impromptu speeches, or table topics, as they are usually called.

“This has turned out to be a great stress buster for all,” says Suganthi.

Chennai Toastmasters Club, one of the oldest in city, started bringing out a virtual magazine called ‘CTM Minizine’ during the lockdown and it shares stories and achievements of its members.

“We have our executive committee members working to collect and present a 8-10 page newsletter, helping us know each other better,” says Chandini Ravikumar, a member.

Mogappair Marvels, which was formed last year, has been using the lockdown time to know each member better.

“We have 22 members but a majority of them were not regular. We designed a flyer and sent it to all the members to check their well-being first,” says Lakhbir Dhanjal, president of the Club.

Most clubs are witnessing an increase in their attendance. Of the 47 members in the Chennai Wordsmiths Club, 30 would generally attend their weekly meetings held at Anna Nagar Tower Park. Now, this count has increased by 10-15 percent, says B. Karthikeyan, past president of the Club.

“More than attendance, we see more people taking up slots or roles like ‘timer’, ‘technical host’, ‘table topicsmaster’, ‘grammarian’ which is encouraging,” says Karthikeyan.

Ambattur Achievers Toastmasters Club has been seeing the family attend as a whole. “Previously, it was just one member who made it to the meeting, now as a majority are at home, there is scope for the whole family to listen as well as participate,” says Dharma. The chapter has been consciously picking topics related to the pandemic to connect with all.

There are also members who long for in-person meetings, especially at events like elections where the fun cannot be replicated virtually. So, what will be a post-COVID world be like for toastmasters? Some club members have already put out a suggestion that it should have a mix of both, in-person and virtual meetings.

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