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Past President’s Interview: Bill Russell (1996/97) on why it pays to be personal

October 10, 2012

Q: During your time as President did anything memorable take place during meetings or otherwise?
A:  This was in the pre-email days so I started writing a bi-weekly newsletter that recapped the last meeting, showed the upcoming agenda and any other pertinent news.   I made a ton of personal phone calls to get members who had fallen by the wayside back into the club and/or active again.  The personal touch worked wonders and our meetings were all 25+ attendees with plenty of guests.  I also made personal calls to the guests to help transform them into members.

Q: Will you describe the best speech you heard during your Presidency? What made it so good?
A: I don’t remember if this speech was during my presidency or simply in the last few years of my membership but the most memorable speech I ever heard was an icebreaker.  A young Vietnamese woman told the story of her family’s escape from Vietnam by boat.  Her mother had explained to her that, if approached by a police boat she was to tell the officers that they were only on a fishing trip for the night.  This caused a great moral dilemma for the toddler as her mother had told her never to lie — no matter what.  Now her mom was asking her to lie.  It wasn’t until she was older that she learned that officers always asked the children about the journeys because they didn’t lie.  When they told the truth about escaping the officers would kill everyone in the boat.  To this day she suffers not knowing which of her mother’s commands she would have obeyed and the fate of all those people who’s lives were preciously held in the hands of a small child.  I have tears in my eyes every time I think of this story.

Q: What made you decide to become President? How did it come about?
A: Our club was suffering on the attendance front following our hosting of the District Conference and Speech Contests.  Most of our veterans were spent and our VPE decided to quit the club.  This left a huge hole.  Corinthians was too important to me to see it wilt after a great year so I told them I’d take the helm and see the club through a difficult storm.  With a lot of help from the old hands that came back once I made the personal calls, we brought the club back to its full strength and brought in tons of new members.

Q: What have you taken away with you from your time as President? Did you achieve your goals?
A: Nothing beats the personal touch in meetings and especially in setting them up.  The magic to a great meeting is all of the work that’s done beforehand.  I still find the phone to be 20x the medium that Facebook, email or texting is because it allows me to express my opinion with full emotion and to hear the problems and triumphs of the member on the other side.

Q: Is there any advice you would give to future Presidents with the benefit of hindsight?

A: Read all the other responses to this question!  Spend time with your VPE to setup your meetings with a good mix of experienced and new Toastmasters.  Getting the meeting magic right is not by magic, it’s by preparation.

Bill Russell (President 1996/1997)

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