Meet Toastmasters' 2008-2009 International President Jana Barnhill, DTM, AS

Newly elected International President Jana Barnhill is a Distinguished Toastmaster in more than one sense. Not only is she the fourth woman President in the organization’s history, she is also one of a handful of women who have earned the prestigious Toastmasters Accredited Speaker award – and she has twice competed in the World Championship of Public Speaking, placing second in 1996 and third in 1993.

She is married to Toastmasters Past International President and Accredited Speaker Robert “Bob” Barnhill, DTM, and joined Toastmasters 24 years ago because she says her husband “seemed to have so much fun at these meetings, I wanted to check it out.” He took her to their first conference and she was hooked.

Bob and Jana live in Lubbock, Texas, where they run a professional speaking and training business called L.I.V.E. Speakers, Inc. 

Explain why you chose your theme – “Toastmasters: the Courage to Conquer!”
I have always been inspired by the Toastmasters Vision Statement, which concludes with the words: “...people throughout the world can improve their communication and leadership skills, and find the courage to change.”

I have watched so many people come into Toastmasters, and as they have developed their confidence, that confidence has expanded into courage – the Courage to Conquer! Currently, my home club consists of many doctoral students from China and Taiwan. Those young men and women have left behind everything they know to come to a new land with a different language, different customs and a different culture. That takes courage! They have all shared how Toastmasters has helped them develop that courage.

I have seen Toastmasters instill in others the Courage to Conquer a new job, a new relationship, even a devastating illness. Personally, there were many times in my life, before Toastmasters, when I simply lacked the courage to do something I wanted to do, or to say something I wanted to say.

Author James Allen wrote, “Whether you be man or woman, you will never accomplish anything in this world without courage.” I believe we all want to accomplish something. We all have challenges we wish to conquer. I know of no other place that instills that needed courage like Toastmasters!

Give us an example of when Toastmasters gave you the Courage to Conquer.
I had been a Toastmaster just a short while when my grandfather died. I have two older brothers, but my aunt told my parents that she wanted me to speak at the funeral. I couldn’t believe it! And I didn’t want to do it. But when I mentioned it to one of my fellow members, he said, “Jana, you can do it! We’ll help you!”

They did. I practiced at my club and they really provided me the encouragement I needed to be able to stand in front of all those people and honor my grandfather. 

How has Toastmasters benefited your career?
Actually, I wouldn’t have the career I do were it not for Toastmasters. I never joined this organization to become a professional speaker! It just evolved. I did well in the speech contests and then became familiar with the Accredited Speaker Program. I became friends with Sheryl Roush, an Accredited Speaker sister, who at the time was a trainer for the seminar company CareerTrack.

                    "There are few things as gratifying as seeing new members come
                    into our organization and watching their transformation."

You couldn’t even secure an interview with that company unless you were recommended by one of their trainers. Sheryl was kind enough and had enough confidence in me to recommend me, and I was hired! That was my first experience as a professional speaker. Today, my husband, Bob, and I own our own company, L.I.V.E. Speakers, Inc. Starting your own business, by the way, also took some Courage to Conquer! 

What are some of your hobbies and interests?
Bob and I are theme park fanatics. There isn’t a roller coaster out there we haven’t found the Courage to Conquer! We plan to ride all the world’s top-rated roller coasters and we joke that when we are 90 years old, we will still be going to Disneyland – and the younger people better not get in our way!

I am also a nut about Christmas. I go all-out decorating inside and out. As of now, we put up nine Christmas trees inside. One of them creates fabulous memories every year, because every ornament on it was given to us by Toastmasters. This past year we had our outside lights and decorations choreographed to music, which played through people’s radio stations. It made the local news and we were told there were nights that the line of cars to see it was more than 11 blocks long.

Fortunately, we have wonderful neighbors who never complained! I loved it and can’t wait to see what the man who designed it all comes up with this year! 

What book are you currently reading?
Right now I am reading Presidential Courage – Brave Leaders and How They Changed America. In light of the work Toastmasters is doing on governance reshaping, I have also read several books on change, and I frequently go back and look at Ralph Smedley’s The Story of Toastmasters and Personally Speaking, books I believe every Toastmaster should read.

You and your husband are both Accredited Speakers. He is a Past International President and now you are President. Those are both firsts. Are you two competitive with each other?
Oh, that’s funny. Not long ago Bob was a speaker at an advanced club where we are both members. In this club we do round-robin evaluations. I was the last to offer an evaluation to Bob and when I was finished, one of the members said, “Wouldn’t you love to go home with them?”

The fact is, we are each other’s toughest critic and at the same time, each other’s biggest supporter. Any time either one of us starts to beat up on ourself, the other simply will not allow it. There is no doubt that has contributed greatly to what we have been able to accomplish. But you will never see us in a speech contest against each other! 

You have been a Toastmaster for 24 years now. Why do you stay?
Several reasons: One, I know that I will never be perfect. I still have a lot to learn, both as a speaker and a leader. Two, there are few things as gratifying as seeing new members come into our organization and watching their transformation. Seeing how our program can help shape lives is truly amazing! That is a tremendous thing to be a part of.

Finally, some of our best friends are Toastmasters. It is fascinating to me that this organization brings people together who otherwise may never have met. We have a close group of Toastmasters friends who does not have the same political or religious affiliations. We live in different states and countries. We are not the same ages. Some are married, some are not. Some have children, some do not. Yet we vacation together, spend holidays together. We celebrate together and cry together. The skills, the experiences and the lifelong friendships are why I stay. 

Tell us about your worst speaking memory.
Ugh! In Toastmasters it would be the first year I competed in the International Speech Contest. I had only been in Toastmasters nine months and I had won the district level of the competition. I was so overwhelmed at the regional contest that I never saw the lights – until the red light had been on about a minute! I never went overtime again! 

                    "Serving as an officer, at any level, can and should be one of the best experiences
                    of your life. That doesn't mean it's easy. There are many times when doing the
                    right thing takes a great deal of courage!"

Outside of Toastmasters there was a time when I hosted a 30-minute interview program on our local PBS television station. One of my very first interviews was with the new president of one of our local universities. Almost every question I had prepared was a close-ended question. We had gone through every one of my questions in about 10 minutes! Thank goodness for Toastmasters! It gave me the Courage to Conquer the most uncomfortable speaking situation I have ever encountered. I have since gone through the Advanced Manual Communicating on Television more than once! 

Who are some leaders you admire and why?
In American politics, Abraham Lincoln had an impeccable talent for bringing people together, even those who fought vehemently against him. Ronald Reagan was the best I’ve ever seen at connecting with everyone, even across party lines. In business, Bill Gates not only built, but defined, an entire industry. He was not only a visionary but a pragmatist as well.

I also have to mention Helen Blanchard, the first woman president of Toastmasters International. In my eyes, she exemplifies the Courage to Conquer! She had the courage to be a part of this organization before women were even allowed. And the obstacles she had to overcome in order to serve as our first woman president were unbelievable. Thank you, Helen, for paving the way for Pauline Shirley, Jo Anna McWilliams and now me. 

How do you hope clubs and districts will fulfill your theme?
One of the things I would like to see is an increased focus on quality, at every level. That means raising expectations. For clubs, that means a president may need to find the Courage to Conquer meetings that aren’t as organized as they should be. It may mean challenging those who aren’t following the program and are not delivering manual speeches or providing effective evaluations. It may mean having the Courage to Conquer the status quo in a club that hasn’t lived up to the officer standards by attending training, having regular executive committee meetings and striving to be a Distinguished Club.

At the district level, it means district governors may need the Courage to Conquer clubs that are “on the books” but are not viable. District leaders may need to find the Courage to Conquer the temptation to charter new clubs that do not have the foundation to be sustainable clubs. They may also need to find the Courage to Conquer distractions that, while possibly are good ideas, take the focus away from their mission.

Serving as an officer, at any level, can and should be one of the best experiences of your life. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are many times when doing the right thing takes a great deal of courage! 

If you had a message for every Toastmaster, what would it be?
Do not leave Toastmasters until you have at least earned your Competent Communicator award and served as a club officer! I believe if we made a diligent effort in our clubs to introduce the members to the multitude of opportunities available to them beyond the Competent Communication manual, and encouraged them to serve as officers, they would stay much longer than they do. 

What are your dreams and goals for your term in office?
My dream is to see a significant increase in the number of Distinguished clubs. Our clubs are the catalyst of this organization and we want to feel confident that when any visitor walks into a Toastmasters club anywhere in the world, they are seeing the very best we have to offer. I believe that quality clubs are the key to both membership growth and retention.

I also dream that we will all have the Courage to Conquer any changes necessary to catapult this organization into the future and embrace those changes with one voice and one purpose – to see our strategic goal of becoming the world’s leading movement devoted to the development of communication and leadership skills become a reality!