Toasts of the town

Dear Ace: My little sister’s getting married soon, and everyone wants me to make a speech during the reception. Trouble is, I’m a mumbler, I’ve always been struck with stage fright, and my off-the-cuff jokes aren’t funny, they’re just offensive and lame. Won’t you help me work up some gumption, Ace?—Stuttering-Stanley-in-Charlottesville

Two words, Stan: Open bar.

Then again, Ace’s recipe for brazen wordplay in the harsh light of public scrutiny is probably not the one you need. You’re better off honing your speech-making abilities in the context of a time-tested, regular practice. You could try out a few of the more commonly known methods, like practicing in front of a mirror, or visualizing the audience in their underpants. In the end, however, there’s only so much you can do in private to prepare for your words to be meticulously picked apart by your friends and family.

That’s where the Toastmasters come in. Since their origin in a YMCA basement in Santa Ana, California, circa 1924, they’ve taught the arts of public speaking and sociability across the world, through over 12,500 clubs in 106 countries. Charlottesville alone has two chapters: the Vinegar Hill Toastmasters Club, which meets every Friday from noon to 1pm in the Albemarle County Office Building, and the Blue Ridge Toastmasters, which typically gathers every Tuesday at the Northside Library from 7 to 8:45pm.

Meetings, according to Toastmasters International’s website, usually comprise approximately 20 to 40 people, who practice and learn skills “by filling a meeting role, ranging from giving a prepared speech or an impromptu one to serving as a timer, evaluator or grammarian.” This takes place in a learn-by-doing context, forgoing lectures in favor of putting participants on the spot in terms of their speaking and leadership skills. Additionally, Toastmasters meetings have no instructor. Individual efforts are critiqued by the collective, just like you’ll be during the moment of truth, whether it’s a wedding reception, press conference or parole hearing.

If the Toastmasters curriculum doesn’t work for you, though, take heart—even if you bungle your speech, you can bring it gracefully to an end with an exotic foreign language salutation. Ace’s closer of choice is Egészségedre, Hungarian for “To your good health.” That one never fails to impress.

You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to

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