When I was hired to teach a class at a university in Warsaw, I wondered what I would do in my spare time there. Sure, the historic city has extraordinary sights. But what about friendship? What about good conversation? What about educational opportunities?
Then it hit me: What about Toastmasters?
Toastmasters has been operating in Poland for just 23 years, and the country already has 60 chartered clubs, with new ones springing up all the time. During my brief visit, I had the opportunity to attend meetings at three clubs.
Addicted to Speaking
Meetings at Warsaw’s oldest club, Toastmasters Polska, S.A. (Speakers Anonymous), take place in the beautiful Fort Sokolnickiego, in a posh district of the city known as Zoliborz (pronounced, more or less, “Zholybush”). The club is one of the two in the city that conduct meetings in English, and among its membership are some of the most senior Toastmasters in town.
One of them, Antoni Jakubowski, ACG, CL, was the Toastmaster the evening I visited. Dressed in a white dress shirt and gray vest, this member of five clubs claims he is “addicted to Toastmasters.” The consummate professional meeting host, he was energetic, inspiring and entertaining, especially when he danced, donned a crown or showed photos of his grandchildren. It all made perfect sense, because the meeting fell on Children’s Day, and that was the theme.
Although the word of the day was “childish,” the meeting was anything but. It kicked off with former club president Kristina Jonkuviene, CC, speaking her warm, yet formal, appreciation for those club members who had organized a four-day retreat during the previous holiday weekend. Instead of the usual three speeches and three evaluations, we heard one speech and enjoyed a mini-evaluation contest with four exceptional participants. The speakers were all so good that I was glad I wasn’t asked to judge!
No English in the House
At House of Toastmasters, which meets on the campus of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in the Praga neighborhood, the members’ words were welcoming, skilled and all-around delightful—but they were spoken in Polish. In all my years attending Toastmasters meetings in various cities, I never attended a meeting in which I didn’t know the language. My loss! Of course it helped that a lovely woman, Monika Puszko, CC, offered to interpret for me. She was as accommodating as could be, but explaining the prepared speeches and Table Topics would have been distracting to others. Do you think that stopped me from enjoying myself, or from writing evaluations for the speakers? I just sat back and listened to tone, rate and pauses, and watched for facial expressions, gestures and use of space.
In all my years attending Toastmasters meetings in various cities, I had never been to a club in which I didn’t know the language.
House of Toastmasters was chartered less than four months before I got to Poland, having grown out of a more established club called Toastmasters Leaders, of which Monika is a member. The new club, with the help of its founders and mentors, is growing steadily. Many of the members are young professionals looking to enhance their speaking and leadership skills, but about half are college students. To my surprise, I knew one of them.
The evening’s Toastmaster, Adrian Lewandowski, age 20, says he may well be the youngest Toastmaster in the city. When we realized that we had seen each other earlier in the week at another club, he told me that he was making a point to visit every Toastmasters club in Warsaw during his few months off between finishing his exams and going on to study electrical engineering. Adrian’s theme, the European soccer championship, elicited some highly energetic Table Topics, by the way. Just as sports coaches in different scenarios would speak to their team players, members spoke to motivate each other. By the time the session was over, all of us were charged to go out and reach—if not score—some goals.
The Elephant in the Room
Why would you name a club Speaking Elephants?
“Because,” said Vice President Public Relations and president-elect Roman Gudym, CC, CL, “elephants have two big ears, so they’re great listeners. They communicate with their whole bodies, including their ears. And of course, they never forget.”
It took a memorable tram ride, two subways and a short walk to get from my faculty housing to the Mokotow area of Warsaw where the meeting was held, but I won’t forget the friendly welcome I received. The evening’s Toastmaster, Sudharman Ezhil, CC, originally from India, had chosen the theme Travel-Explore-Learn. He pointed out that his fellow English-speaking club members hail from a variety of countries, including Ukraine, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Argentina, the United States and China. Indeed, the evening’s first speaker, Kim Jiyoung, from South Korea, titled her Ice Breaker, “Why Did I Come to Europe?”
Having such a wide variety of members is not the only reason the club is so popular, however. Says Roman, “We are one of the most active clubs on social media, especially on Facebook. We create a Facebook event page for each meeting, with a summary and photos. Because posts with pictures get most of the interest and ‘likes’ on Facebook, Speaking Elephants consistently reaches the top of Google searches for ‘public speaking’ or ‘Toastmasters.’”
More to Learn
Speaking Elephants also advertises its Leader of the Month contests, in which members are awarded points for club meeting participation. I had never seen this before. Plus the written evaluation form at House of Toastmasters is extremely organized, with highly specific guidelines for members on how to help the speaker. What’s more, Polska, S.A., sends guests a friendly and informative email on the very same day they attend a meeting. That was a new one for me as well.
The members at each club graciously welcome guests and invite them out at the end of the meeting to continue the fun. Of course you didn’t invent this, Warsaw, but it’s a wonderful way to extend the meeting and the connections. No wonder Toastmasters Poland is becoming more and more popular.
“Toastmasters Poland is growing very rapidly,” says new Division Director Krzysztof Kopeć, ACB, ALS, “and most of that growth has been in the last five years. During 2014 and 2015 we chartered six clubs in Warsaw alone. This year, we’ve chartered three, and we’re about to add two more. That will make 16 clubs in Warsaw. But, with a population of 1.7 million in the city, I believe we can do even better.”
That growth is promising, he says, because Polish Toastmasters are young and energetic. “The average age of a club member in Poland is around 30, and the average for the world is closer to 45.” That youth, and the energy that comes with being young, was on full display at all three of the meetings I attended. Case in point: At none of the clubs I attended did anyone use a lectern. I haven’t seen this in the States, and although it put me off at first, it was actually a welcome change. It encouraged speakers to work without notes (although they could hold them, if necessary) and allowed them more access to the audience.
As great a time as I had at these clubs, one of the most remarkable aspects of my visits happened after attending two of the meetings. Members approached me and asked, in private, how best to improve their skills. To one I gave a summary of the knowledge I’ve accumulated from being a Toastmaster for 18 years.
What did I say to the other member? Simple. Just keep attending these amazing club meetings.
Caren Schnur Neile, Ph.D., ATMS, CL is an affiliate professor at Florida Atlantic University. She is a frequent contributor to Toastmaster magazine and has spoken at two Toastmasters International conventions.