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Toastmasters of La Jolla: Club sees record membership, speaker awards

It’s been a busy year for Toastmasters of La Jolla, the local branch of the organization aimed at improving public speaking skills. Starting in June 2014, the club experienced a leap in membership — jumping from 18 members to 57 — and some existing members took their communication skills to new heights.

Take for example, Joshua Rutherford, the group’s vice-president of membership, who recently published his first book. Or Prabhu Kandasamy, who is prepping a speech for an international competition.

“Our growth has been tremendous,” said Toastmasters president Melanie Klinghoffer. “We have people from all over the world as members, speaking publicly at different levels from novice to advanced. We also offer a mentorship program that allows new members to work with seasoned members on their first speaking experience. We believe you rise in leadership when you help lift others.”

Toastmasters of La Jolla members gather for a photo — Joshua Rutherford, Sandeep Ponnuru, Melanie Klinghoffer, Prabhu Kandasamy, Alexandra Smiley, Annie Winners, Anthony Pascale, Renee Greenwood, Sherryl Santos, Vijay Tolani and Christy Gonzalez. Courtesy
Toastmasters of La Jolla members gather for a photo — Joshua Rutherford, Sandeep Ponnuru, Melanie Klinghoffer, Prabhu Kandasamy, Alexandra Smiley, Annie Winners, Anthony Pascale, Renee Greenwood, Sherryl Santos, Vijay Tolani and Christy Gonzalez. Courtesy
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The club uses structured weekly meetings and exercises to address various communication skills. Members provide feedback in the “sandwich method,” offering something good about the speech, followed by a way to improve it, topped off by another something good.

Klinghoffer added that oftentimes in the workplace, there aren’t opportunities to get that training or encouragement without repercussion. “Your livelihood and salary are tied to workplace performance and there’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “When it comes to Toastmasters, you get to work on skills at your own pace and in your own way. We look at how to practice a speech, how to speak in an advanced manner, and how to be a charming leader.”

The approach worked for Rutherford and Kandasamy.

For Rutherford, his confidence level on day one at Toastmasters to the present is “night and day,” he said. “I remember my very first speech and I was incredibly nervous. I held it together, but I was shaking inside. Since that time, I’ve given countless speeches in front of people. My enunciation has greatly improved, and overall, I feel very comfortable speaking in front of an audience today.”

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Participating in Toastmasters also inspired Rutherford in a surprising way. “A lot of people wouldn’t associate joining a public speaking group with improving one’s writing ability, but I found it had a very positive effect on that. Toastmasters got me focused on dialogue: the way people speak, what they say and how they say it,” he said.

In the acknowledgment section of his self-published fiction, “Sons of Chenia,” he thanks Toastmasters of La Jolla for its help and support. In his professional life, the Human Resources worker said he has learned to speak to people with confidence and handle situations calmly.

For Kandasamy, participating in Toastmasters helped hone his skills so he could share his inspirational story — living with polio — in a way that reaches the broadest audience. At the urging of his now-wife, he looked into becoming a motivational speaker, and started with Toastmasters.

Born healthy in India, Kandasamy said he contracted polio when he was 18 months old, but at early onset with seizures and a fever, doctors had no idea what was wrong with him. “When a doctor finally checked my legs, they did a test with a hammer where they tap your leg with increased intensity to see what you feel, I didn’t react to any of it,” he said. “They realized I was paralyzed.”

He spent the next three years in physical therapy and in hospitals, getting to the point where he could walk without support. It wasn’t until he started school and saw how other children walked and ran that he knew he was different. “Every time people would look at me, they would have pity in their eyes,” Kandasamy said. “It was hurtful. I thought ‘there is no need to pity me, I’m fine and I am happy with who I am.’ ” During his teen years, he learned self-sufficiency and how to pick himself up when he would fall — literally and figuratively. “We all have challenges in life. If you have courage and confidence to face life, face these challenges, you will get through it,” Kandasamy said.

Prabhu Kandasamy celebrates his victory at the District 5 Toastmasters International Competition with district governor Mark Rauschenbach.
Prabhu Kandasamy celebrates his victory at the District 5 Toastmasters International Competition with district governor Mark Rauschenbach.

With his story prepared, all he needed were the skills to convey his message. “When I gave my first speech, I thought it was spectacular. Then I got feedback that offered me a different perspective and another way to structure my speeches,” Kandasamy said, especially for an American audience. For example, when he spoke about his time in “hostel” he didn’t know the American term was “boarding school.”

“I also used to use a lot of filler words such as ‘um’ and ‘uh,’ but I became aware of that in Toastmasters,” he said.

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As his speeches improved, he decided to enter local competitions. He quickly made his way up to the division and district levels (District 5, which covers San Diego, spans all the way to Arizona), before qualifying for the Toastmasters International Semifinals and World Championship of Public Speaking. The World Championship is held in August in Las Vegas.

Setting his own success aside, Kandasamy said he enjoys hearing the stories of others. “When you go to a Toastmasters meeting, you hear some amazing stories and learn incredible new things that people are passionate about. We don’t judge each other, and that provides a beautiful environment for sharing our stories,” he said.

That lack of judgment, Klinghoffer said, contributes to the “tremendous amount of camaraderie” within the club. “In addition to the education component, there is the support of a group of people who are truly cheering you on. They want to see you succeed,” she said.

■ Want to join? Although there is a waiting list for the La Jolla chapter, Klinghoffer suggests those who want to join a club find another meeting nearby. There’s a list of clubs at toastmasters.org