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Toastmasters speak the global language of humanity, ambition

Ena Agbahovbe, a petroleum engineer from Nigeria, joined
Toastmasters International two years ago and credits it with
transforming his life. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

James Traywick is wearing a dark gray suit with a bright yellow pocket square, a lemon yellow shirt, a bow tie with a sliced lemon motif and, we will learn later, is carrying an actual lemon in his jacket pocket.

The retired Chicago public school teacher, 69, belongs to seven local Toastmasters clubs, and was among 30,000 members around the globe who entered this year’s speech-making competition. He’s tried several times, but this year was the first year he was among 106 who made it into the semi-finals, held last Friday at McCormick Place, site of Toastmasters International’s 87th annual convention.

“It’s such a safe environment to make mistakes in,” said Traywick, of the organization. “To improve your speaking ability. That was the emphasis for me joining, and it has been a really great experience.


Founded in California in 1924, Toastmasters has 357,000 members in 143 countries. About 1,700 were at the convention, attending networking lunches and talks with titles like, “How to Get What You Want: Influencing Others Into Action.” The halls were crowded with men in three-piece suits and white Arabic thobes, women in colorful dresses and flowing chadors, entire districts clad in matching outfits: maroon golf shirts on a group from Northern California, goldenrod dashikis on 20 Nigerians, including Ena Agbahovbe.

“This is my first time wearing something like this,” said the petroleum engineer from Lagos. “In our culture, when we’re having a big ceremony, we like to dress similarly, to show we’re like a family.”

He joined Toastmasters two years ago.

“For me, it’s been a life-changer,” said Agbahovbe. “I used to be nervous in front of crowds. Somehow I managed to avoid giving speeches [or] playing leadership roles. However, I am now at a crossroads in my career. I need to be promoted to a supervisory and management level. I need to deal with people, so I joined Toastmasters.”

And it helped?

“Wow. My life has changed. I can control the butterflies in my tummy,” he said. “My life has more meaning now because I have more friends across the club. I’m currently the president of my club in Nigeria. This is the first time I’ve had a leadership position in anything.”

Agbahovbe was not among the 106 semi-finalists in the largest public speaking contest in the world. He placed third at the district level.

“I’m here to cheer the lady who came first,” he said.

I went to cheer Traywick, competing against 10 others in the first round of the semi-finals, beginning with Leesa Askew of Jacksonville, Florida, giving a speech titled, “You are Chosen.”

“Since the dawn of time, women have been giving birth,” she said, polished and emotive, prowling the stage. “Because of this, all of you are able to be here this morning,” she added, going on to outline the tremendous odds against any of us ever being born.

The talks must be 5 to 7 minutes long, and none lagged as various speakers — all sharp and polished, at times a little too much — outlined the power of community, love, family, trying harder, coming together.

“The cracks that divide us don’t have to become canyons,” said Sam Walsham. “We can bridge them.”

Walsham hails from Perth, Australia. Others in Traywick’s round came from New York, the Cayman Islands, Oregon, Los Angeles and Singapore, a woman named Wiwiek Najihah, whose talk was titled, “What Are You Waiting For?”

“How do you feel when someone keeps you waiting?” she began, talking of a doting grandfather, whose homemade meals she didn’t always have time to share, a failure of values she didn’t realize until he died. She skillfully mixed humor and pathos.

“In my job, I manage a team of procrastinators,” she said, to laughter. “It’s a tough job. Not everyone can do it. I am … a mother. I have three, beautiful kids. I love them … most of the time.”

Traywick spoke 9th.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” he began.

He reflected on having a speech impediment as a child, of how others — Ray Charles, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein — overcame difficulties. His lemon was used to explain that he views limitations as “lemontations.”

The judges pondered a long time. Traywick did not win. The Singapore mom, Wiwiek Najihah, did. She accepted her trophy and uttered two words that I would bet aren’t heard much at Toastmaster events.

“I’m speechless,” she said.

James Traywick (right) of Chicago, and Wiwiek Najihah (left) competed in Toastmasters International’s speech competition in Chicago last week. | Photo courtesy of Toastmasters International
James Traywick (right) of Chicago, and Wiwiek Najihah (left) competed in Toastmasters International’s speech competition in Chicago last week. | Photo courtesy of Toastmasters International