Manner of Speaking: My Day in Prison

Manner of Speaking: My Day in Prison

A Toastmaster is inspired by
the women behind bars.

 By Susanne Riehle, ACG, CL

Jean Lawson – my friend and former area governor – asked me for a favor. Jean was mentoring a new club and asked me to go with her. The club was a long distance away...and in a setting very unlike our own club. It was in a women’s prison.

I wasn’t expecting much. But life has a way of hiding surprises in the most unlikely places.

As it turns out, the timing of this opportunity was most fortunate. As VP Education in my club, I’d been asked questions about how to do that hardest of the Competent Communicator speeches: the Inspirational Speech. Our visit to a women’s prison helped me figure out some important things about inspiration.

This new club is mostly comprised of inmates but is open to the community as a way of fostering goodwill and furthering the skills and understanding of all parties. It’s brand new and the members were giving Ice Breaker speeches. As I listened to one of the ladies talk about herself, it was clear that Ice Breakers are difficult speeches to give. I was struck by the courage of these women as they strove to understand their pasts and to work toward a new future. It also struck me how true this is in any Toastmasters club.

As a former club president and current officer in my club, I’m most proud of how many people have changed their lives through membership in Toastmasters. We have a large number of people who decided to pursue master’s degrees, and a few who are working on their bachelor’s degrees. We’ve had members start businesses. We’ve had major career changes. We’ve had people reach higher in their careers. In my club, as in the prisoners’ club, the members are searching for better, more effective ways of enacting change in their lives. Not surprisingly, Toastmasters find that simply articulating dreams is an effective first step toward achieving those dreams. And it’s true inside or outside prison walls.

More importantly, I realized that for these ladies – or for any Toastmaster – inspiration must be found in your immediate environment. If these inmates don’t find inspiration in their environment, then they most likely won’t find it at all. Is it any different for the rest of us?

  • My first lesson of the day was that the best inspiration is found locally. I vowed to communicate this to my club when I returned: If you are looking for a topic for an inspirational speech, look around you for what inspires you.
  • My second lesson of the day was that inspiration must be personal. If you wish to inspire people, then the topic must be relevant to the audience. In the case of prisoners giving Ice Breaker speeches, everyone in the room understood the journey of each speaker. That understanding was important to the speaker, but even more important to the audience. Understanding forges an emotional connection. And added emotionality is the difference that can make a speech inspirational.
  • The final lesson of inspirational speaking is the one the young prisoners’ club is still learning: Inspirational speeches must be vibrant. Rich words, enthusiastic delivery and audience involvement are part of a vibrant speech. And I know what a challenge that must be, especially behind prison walls. But I also know these women will eventually do it.

I have supreme confidence in our prisoners’ club. By the time these young club members get to the 10th speech, they will have mastered the techniques of inspiration!

That day I wasn’t expecting much. But life has a way of hiding surprises in the most unlikely places – even behind bars. If you ever have a chance to visit a new club, of any kind, look at it as an opportunity. You may find yourself inspired. 

Susanne Riehle, ACG, CL is an artist and engineer, and a member of Columbus club in Columbus, Indiana.

Tips and Tricks of Inspirational Speeches

Topic selection
Local: Look for topics in your own world. The best inspiration is that which surrounds you.
Personal: Look for topics that are meaningful to your audience.
Vibrant: Look for ideas that can be explained in a vibrant and emotional way.

Structure differences
Persuasive speeches have an opening, a few supporting points and a closing.
Inspirational speeches have an emotional theme: Use a few emotional arguments that build in strength and close with a strong emotional comment.

The difference between a statement and an emotional argument
Statements speak to the head and emotional arguments speak to the head and the heart:

  • Statement: “Everyone in this room could donate a pint of blood.”
  • Emotional argument: “If all of us in this room each donated a pint of blood, we could save 20 lives!”


Take your delivery up a notch:

  • Make strong eye contact.
  • Move closer to the audience – especially when making key points.
  • Use personal stories.
  • Use picture and story words.
  • Use pauses: A well-timed pause underlines the statements.

If at all possible, state your first point in a way to elicit nods from the audience. You are speaking to the head and the heart; it’s always good to get both on your side! Example: “It’s a shame to lose a single life.”