Since 2015, the Northside Toastmasters Club has been a friendly, supportive atmosphere to meet neighbors, develop public speaking skills and ultimately “improve together.”

By Ashlee Green

The Northside Toastmasters Club recently earned the status of “Select Distinguished Club” by Toastmasters International, an educational organization started in the 1920s that promotes communication and leadership skills. The only Toastmasters Club in Pittsburgh’s Northside, according to the club’s founder, Paul Matthews, Northside  Toastmasters first met at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny branch in June 2015, and officially chartered in March 2016.

Matthews, a resident of Fineview, founded the club as his capstone project on the path to become a “Distinguished Toastmaster,” the highest achievement for a Toastmasters member. He envisioned the club as an asset to the Northside community.

“It’s not my club, it’s the community’s club” said Matthews. “I get to meet my neighbors, hear their stories and see them grow.”

Matthews said he’s always considered himself an introvert, and that Toastmasters offered a “way to keep himself on track,” in his career and life. He works as the Director of Finance at UPMC and was recently invited to make a speech on the main stage of the Technology Business Management (TBM) Conference at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Matthews credited Toastmasters for much of his
success.

Elizabeth Murray Finkelstein, Immediate Past President and Current Vice President of Education for Northside Toastmasters, agreed.

“Toastmasters has improved my sensitivity to the way everybody communicates. It’s made me a better listener and better able to respond to requests I’ve received,” she said. Murray Finkelstein works in fine arts and owns a photography archive that she exhibits internationally. She deals with a wide range of people and communication styles. Toastmasters, she said, has been a boon to her business: “It’s helped me to be more present to people that I’m communicating with, be it in person or online, anywhere around the world.” The club still meets at the library, on select Thursdays.

Meetings follow a standard format: The President calls the meeting to order, makes relevant announcements and introduces the evening’s Toastmaster. Then the Toastmaster identifies the people who are serving the evening’s key roles (members sign up for roles ahead of time), including the two or three scheduled speakers. Speakers deliver a five to seven minute speech on a topic of their choice (the night I visited, topics were hydrocephalus and internet security) and are paired up with an evaluator, who rates them on factors like clarity, eye contact and comfort level.

There’s also a grammarian, who checks for filler words like “um” and “like” and proper word usage, and a general evaluator, who monitors the time. After the speeches is “Table Topics,” where members practice impromptu speaking skills. They answer questions such as, “What’s the best meal you’ve had in the last 30 days?,” and “What is your dream vacation?” These types of questions, Matthews said, often “trip people up” in an interview setting.

The strength of Northside Toastmasters is in its members, whom Matthews said include young people, retirees and stay-at-home moms.

“The club’s diversity reflects the diversity of the Northside as a whole,” said Matthews. Another aspect that contributes to the club’s success is its friendly, supportive environment.

“Meetings feel really packed—in terms of everybody being able to contribute—packed full of information.” said Murray Finkelstein. “At the same time, everybody leaves feeling excited, invigorated. Everybody’s looking out for everybody else. We all improve together.”

Northside Toastmasters is free for visitors and open to the public every second and fourth Thursday of the month, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Carnegie Library of
Pittsburgh – Allegheny located at 1230 Federal St.

For more information visit the Northside Toastmasters website.