October 2, 2023

‘Purdue Pursuits’: Toastmasters at Purdue

For some, the thought of public speaking can be enough to trigger a flurry of nervousness, discomfort and anxiety. Zhenhua Zeng is no stranger to those emotions, but after spending eight years mastering the craft as a member of Toastmasters at Purdue, he embraces — even anticipates — new opportunities to grow as a presenter, communicator and leader.

Zeng, a research scientist in the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, joined Toastmasters at Purdue in 2015 — the year the club, created for Purdue faculty, staff and students, made its debut on the West Lafayette campus. As a non-native speaker with little experience preparing speeches, Zeng knew it could be the perfect opportunity to improve his English skills. But he was also fascinated by public speaking, and his top priority was to strengthen the communication and leadership skills necessary to excel in both oration and his profession.

“Learning how to be an effective communicator and leader is what’s most important to me,” says Zeng, who’s currently serving as the club’s 2023-24 president. “Leaders try to inspire others, and when I work with faculty, staff and students, I want to be engaging and motivating. Improving those skills is an endless process.”

Founded in 1924, Toastmasters International is a nonprofit organization with more than 270,000 members in over 14,200 clubs around the globe. Although each club has its unique culture, they all incorporate materials from Pathways, the organization’s flexible education program containing 11 specialized learning paths that help members build more than 300 skill set competencies.

New members of Toastmasters at Purdue often begin their journey along the presentation mastery path, which contains various speaking projects designed to teach the fundamentals of speech writing and delivery. After completing the path, they can pursue other areas to focus on skills like leadership, coaching, planning, persuasion, collaboration and more. Each path contains five levels, and individuals usually complete three speeches in each level to advance to the next.

pt-toastmasters-group-800x533 Purdue faculty, staff and undergraduate and graduate students gather in Forney Hall, Room 3059 for a Toastmasters at Purdue weekly meeting. (Left to right): Viswanath Pasumarthi, Ethan Vaughn, Brian Dineen, Zhenhua Zeng, Saunok Chakrabarty, Yiyun Wang, Yangyang Zhu, Crenel Francis Jr. and Jinglin Jiang. (Photo provided) Download image

Campus club members apply their presentation skills during weekly meetings built around three key elements: prepared speeches, impromptu speeches and speech evaluations. The formal meetings are designed to give everyone an opportunity to speak and receive constructive feedback — something Zeng has found to be especially helpful.  

“I’ve received a lot of good feedback over the years,” Zeng says as he holds a folded slip of paper with a note reminding him to stand still when he speaks. “This one is very useful. I’ve collected them to remind me, and when I get them out, they’re still helpful.”

Before becoming president, Zeng served as the club’s secretary and vice president of education, two roles that allowed him to fine-tune his abilities as a leader in his field. Since then, he’s taken graduate, undergraduate and high school students under his wing to mentor and inspire them to become next-generation scientists and engineers.

Zeng’s communication skills have also transformed. Preparing and presenting speeches at national and global conferences have helped him discover new ways to organize his thoughts into cohesive, purposeful documents. Now, he’s a published researcher in top scientific journals like Science and Nature.

All of Zeng’s knowledge culminated two years ago when his alma mater, the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics within the Chinese Academy of Sciences, invited him to speak at the institution. He says Toastmasters at Purdue played a key part in opening that door.

“If you read my curriculum vitae, I regard myself as a world-class scientist,” Zeng says. “The reason I can do that is because of what I learned by transferring knowledge into action during my Toastmasters journey. Purdue is a world-class university, and we want the club to reflect that. We recruit world-class members, and we make world-class leaders.”

Whether you’re a faculty or staff member looking for ways to engage students in class; preparing to chair a meeting, symposium or committee; or seeking an outlet to strengthen your interpersonal skills, Zeng says there’s a seat at the table for you.

“At Toastmasters, you’re supposed to make mistakes; it’s practice,” Zeng says. “It’s OK because it’s a safe environment. You learn the skills, practice them and then apply them in the real world. It’s a link from knowledge to the real world.”

How you can participate

An open house event will be at noon Oct. 27 in Forney Hall, Room 3059 for faculty and staff interested in learning more about Toastmasters at Purdue.

Faculty, staff and students can also attend the club’s weekly meetings, which are noon to 1 p.m. on Fridays in Forney Hall, Room 3059. A virtual option is also available.

Members of the club pay a monthly membership fee of $10, which can be reimbursed.

Questions about Toastmasters at Purdue can be directed to toastpu@purdue.edu.

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