Profile: "I'll Take Toastmasters for $2,000!"
Past District 53 Governor is a poised
presence on popular TV quiz show.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Photo Caption: Past District 53 Governor Deb Grehn
poses with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.
Deb Grehn enjoyed watching Jeopardy! as a girl, but she never aspired to be a contestant on the long-running game show. Yet there she was, coolly answering questions from iconic host Alex Trebek in an episode last year.
So what spurred Grehn to aim for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
“A few years ago, when my son Matthew was in ninth grade, he gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me,” she says. “He told me to ‘face my fears.’ Whenever I come up against something that scares me or makes me nervous, I think of his comment, and it gives me the courage to step out of my comfort zone and reach for my dreams.”
A member of three Toastmasters clubs in Connecticut and a past governor of District 53, Grehn says her speaking experience was a big part of her Jeopardy! success. “In every new venture, I use the valuable communication skills I’ve learned as a Toastmaster,” she says.
Jeopardy! contestant producer Maggie Speak says Grehn presented herself in a confident, charming manner, particularly during the segment of the show when Trebek asks the contestants questions about themselves. “The audience laughed as she told a great story with a terrific punch line,” Speak notes. “She’s a classy lady whose presence is strong, visually and vocally.”
Grehn’s Jeopardy! journey began one night in early 2009. As she watched the program, which measures contestants’ knowledge in different subject areas, she learned that Jeopardy! offered an online preliminary test. “I thought, I might as well take the test and see what happens,” says the West Hartford, Connecticut, resident, who has a competitive nature and loves trivia and learning new things. To her delight, she passed the 50-question exam and received a congratulatory e-mail inviting her to Boston for a second test and an interview.
“I was in seventh heaven,” says Grehn, who prepared for the test with the help of her fellow Toastmasters.
A Revealing Story
For the interview, Jeopardy! producers required that Grehn send in five potential questions about herself – the kind Trebek might ask were he to interview her. “It was really challenging to come up with those five questions, because I had to think of interesting and revealing things about myself,” she says. “The one they liked best was about my first date with my husband, Kim, and how we went to a Halloween costume party where I dressed as Lady Godiva.”
When Grehn finished that day, producers told her they would call if they wanted her to appear on an upcoming show. “I left there grinning from ear to ear,” she says.
For four months she didn’t hear anything. “One day I was out shopping and my son called to say that someone from Jeopardy! wanted to talk to me,” Grehn recalls. “When he gave me the number, I remember thinking, ‘If one of my friends is playing a cruel joke I’m going to be really mad!’” It was indeed someone with Jeopardy!, who made arrangements for her to travel to Culver City, California, for a taping of the show in late September. The episode aired October 20, 2009.
Thanks to Toastmasters meetings, Grehn was prepared for the experience. “Even before I got that call, I’d been giving speeches about what I call ‘The Jeopardy! saga,’” she says. “Just the week before, I had talked to one of my clubs about how I was still waiting.”
Grehn’s fellow club member Jane Philion says those speeches were amusing and informative. “Not only was the experience fun for Deb, it gave her a lot of really good speech material and a chance to practice her skills.”
It’s Show Time
When Grehn arrived at the studio early the morning of the show, she reviewed all the rules and regulations and enjoyed the pre-show make-up session. “I loved being pampered,” she says. “The only other time I looked that good was my wedding day.”
Grehn didn’t win, but she enjoyed the experience. “I had the misfortune of competing against a champion who had been on the program for a couple of days. I did the best I could, though, and really enjoyed myself.” Where Grehn believes she shined was during the interview portion with Trebek.
“When he asked about my first date as Lady Godiva, I wasn’t nervous at all, but felt very composed,” she says. “The audience and Alex laughed at my story, which really bolstered my confidence. I attribute that self-assurance to my Toastmasters training.”
“For a lot of contestants, the interview with Alex is the most nerve-wracking part of the experience,” adds Speak, the contestant producer. “Deb’s interview was very natural.”
(Trebek, the suave Canadian who has been hosting the Emmy Award-winning program since 1984, would make a splendid grammarian at a Toastmasters meeting. Although he’s never been a member, he told the Toastmaster magazine in a 2003 profile, “I think that it is a sign of respect to our viewers that I make the effort to pronounce words correctly and to use grammar properly.”)
A Distinguished and Dedicated Toastmaster
Before joining Toastmasters, Grehn thought of herself as the shy, retiring type. Not anymore; during her 17 years as a member, she has held every office at the club level as well as served as a district governor. Grehn, a DTM, belongs to clubs in three different Connecticut cities: the Charter Oak Toastmasters in Glastonbury, the Central Connecticut Advanced club in Berlin and the West Hartford Toastmasters.
“Deb has been a really active member of Toastmasters, which has helped her develop confidence and poise,” says Roger Brown, DTM, a fellow member of the West Hartford club. She has also gained leadership skills, and as a result has held many positions throughout the community.”
Grehn volunteers at a variety of local nonprofits. She is also forming her own company in the field of diversity-management training and consulting.
“Every day, I work toward my dreams so that my future looks dynamic and exciting,” she says. “Looking to your dreams is important, because they are the key to your passion – and that’s one word I’ve kept close to my heart throughout my Toastmasters career. This organization has shaped my life and helped me become the person and communicator I was meant to be.”
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.
Talking Up Toastmasters on Jeopardy!
By Paul Sterman
Deb Grehn isn’t the first Toastmaster to have competed on Jeopardy! Darryl Tahirali, a quality assurance supervisor at Prescription Solutions in Irvine, California, was selected for the quiz show in 2008.
During the segment where host Alex Trebek asks the contestants about themselves, Tahirali talked about how his Toastmasters experience gave him the confidence to try out for the game show. A 10-year member who has competed in speech contests and served in a variety of officer roles, Tahirali said, “You get asked to do things in Toastmasters that you’ve never done before, and doing things like that helps you build the confidence to do things [in life] that you’ve never done before but that maybe you want to.”
He also touched on the value of Table Topics with Trebek.
The Toastmaster’s turn on Jeopardy! was a prosperous one: He won three games, reaping a total of $86,000. Tahirali says being on the show was a great experience, and his fellow members of the Contrarians club in Irvine, California, were excited by it as well.
“One of them said to me, ‘Hey you got the Table Topics phrase out there on national TV.’”
Do you know any Toastmasters who have appeared on Jeopardy!? If so, tell us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Sterman is an associate editor for the Toastmaster magazine.