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Carefully chosen words empower Toastmasters speakers

Marisa Shadrick stands on a backyard patio-sized stage at the front of an intimidatingly gargantuan ballroom at Caesars Palace and begins delivering her speech to a hundred-plus eagerly awaiting audience members.

It’s a speech Shadrick knows well. It’s about chips — the kind that afflict butter dishes and the metaphorical kind that we carry around in our heads — and Shadrick has been living with it pretty much daily during the past half-dozen months.

She wrote it. She rewrote it. She edited it. She tweaked, altered and reworked it, and then did it all over again, all toward honing it to the five-minute, give or take, gem that she hopes will win her a spot in the finals of the Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking competition.

Shadrick, a Henderson resident who is representing Toastmasters International District 33 — which includes Southern Nevada and a hefty chunk of California — in the competition, has presented her speech more than two dozen times before. But it’s her first time speaking before so many people at such a top-tier event, and she considers herself fortunate to be doing it.

“It’s really an honor to be able to represent the district, because there are a lot of great speakers, especially in District 33,” Shadrick says.

The competition took place during Toastmasters International’s 2015 convention, which last week brought about 2,400 Toastmasters International members from all over the world to Las Vegas, says Jim Kokocki, Toastmasters International president.

Toastmasters International was founded in 1924 to teach public speaking and leadership skills. Kokocki says that while some members join to overcome a fear of public speaking, most join simply to become better communicators and leaders in their professional and personal lives.

Members progress at their own pace through a standardized training program. “There is no shortcut to Toastmasters,” Kokocki says, but “people always tell me they came to Toastmasters and they thought it would be a tough environment, but they have fun.”

According to Kokocki, membership in Toastmasters International grew by about 4 percent last year from the previous year and the group now has about 333,000 members in 135 countries.

Guy Dawson, club growth director for Toastmasters International District 33, says the district has about 1,000 members in 72 clubs, and that membership in Las Vegas “is on the rise.”

“We have professionals, we have retired people, we have students,” he says. “We have people who work in casinos, we have blue-collar workers who work in construction. It’s a very diverse membership.”

Members often find that improving their communication and leadership skills results in greater personal confidence, and that Toastmasters clubs are welcoming places in which to learn.

“You’re never alone in Toastmasters. When you go in, you move at your own pace,” he says.

“We have people who are already professional speakers … all the way down to the person who’s never been in front of a crowd in their lives and are terrified of having every eye on them.”

The speech competition is a highlight of each year’s convention. Kokocki likens the mood before the speech contest semifinals to that felt in an athlete’s locker room before a championship game.

“I’m a hockey fan,” says Kokocki, who has read stories about how players preparing for the final game of the Stanley Cup Finals “are very relaxed on the day of the game. As the game gets closer, they get very nervous and some get physically sick sometimes. But when the puck drops, the skills that they have developed come in to play.”

Shadrick says she has been working on her speech for about six months. Toward that end, she has given it about 30 times at local Toastmasters clubs “to get feedback, and then revising it again and doing it over and over.”

Her goals: “You have clarity, you have connection and you have a message to give your audience.”

Shadrick and her husband moved to Southern Nevada from Redding, Calif., in November. She had been involved with Toastmasters there, and says she joined because she’s a writer — mostly of nonfiction inspirational pieces — and that Toastmasters and writing mesh well.

“It’s all about communication and connection,” she says. “I think, whether you’re writing or speaking, you can really make a difference in a person’s life by communication and inspiring things, which is what I like to do. So it was a nice marriage between the two.”

Shadrick happened to be the last of nine speakers to present her speech during her semifinals round. It was a strong bracket, with competitors offering up funny speeches, moving speeches and sad speeches, all based on incidents from their own lives and all having messages for listeners to take away.

Shadrick delivers a powerful, funny, moving speech. She has the audience in her hand, as they laugh where they should and applaud heartily as, maybe, only others who have stood before an audience armed with nothing but the words in their minds can.

Shadrick is poised. She speaks clearly and with enthusiasm. She presents her ideas in a perfectly natural sequence. She uses humor effectively. Her message seems to resonate with her audience.

And, when it’s all over, somebody else wins the semifinal round. But as Shadrick exits the room and walks along the hallway, a strange thing happens: People stop her, shake her hand and thank her.

A woman tells Shadrick that her message hit home with her. Another woman tells Shadrick that she should have won. Yet another tells her, “I thought you were the best.”

Shadrick seems both pleased and surprised. The most important thing, she says, is “when you resonate with people and it touches them and it encourages them, which is what I try to do when I write.”

“When it touches people, that’s what it’s all about,” Shadrick adds, smiling. “That’s a win for me.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280 or follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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