Perhaps it begins with having to recite in class. Or having to tell the family around the dinner table what one learned in school that day. Regardless, the fear of public speaking never leaves; it only gets harnessed, or avoided.

Avoidingthefear is simple - just arrange one's life so one never has to speak in public. Harnessing the fear is hard - but that is the Toastmasters' way.

Toastmasters is an international club dedicated to the proposition that all humans can become equally accustomed to public speaking.

It provides them with lessons, hints and, most important, a forum in which to speak. Not every Toastmaster becomes an instant William Jennings Bryan, but the organization has cracked plenty of tough and reluctant people over the years.

One recent evening, the southern division of the Toastmasters' national capital region held its annual "speak-off" - an elaborately judged contest from which one of six participants would continue to this Saturday's regional finals.

All speeches were original, all were between five and seven minutes long and all were delivered without notes.

All six contestants were well-dressed, well-rehearsed and full of eye-catching mannerisms.

No one held onto the lectern for dear life. No one "ummed" or "aaahed," or said "you know." And no one sounded like a recorded announcement, so sweeping was their phrasing, so precise was their enunciation.

But they were all scared stiff.

Sid Arthur won, and even that did not erase his fearful memories.

A program analyst for the Navy Department, Arthur said he has "always been nervous in front of people," and especially so if he is forced to "wing it."

He recalled a time he put together a one-hour slide show as part of his work. Just as he started, the projector decided to blow a bulb. "I was absolutely petrified. I had a whole hour to fill, and I had no idea what to do," Arthur recalled.

What he did was suffer, struggle - and hasten to join Toastmasters. What he learned right off the bat was that many, many others had already booked passage in the same boat.

At an early meeting of his Toastmasters chapter, Arthur met a woman who was so nervous about public speaking that she would rehearse for hours by speaking at a digital clock - and still fluff her speech when the time came.

Others would open their mouths, and no sound would happen. Still others were able to speak the words in a set speech. But ask them to look at their audience, or improvise, or look cheerful, or give their words a little inflection, and they would "choke" every time.

At the "speak-off," Arthur did anything but. He chose as his topic, "The Meaning of Love," and with his Kentucky-fried accent and slightly sing-songy manner, he made the audience his.

"What is live?" Arthur asked, in perfect rhythm, his hands sweeping large, expressive circles, his eyes darting evenly from side to side. "I say it is misplaced emotion. I advise you to marry the girl you prefer, and to leave love out of it entirely."

If you mate looks you searchingly in the eye and ask if you love him or her, "Just say: 'Could you rephrase the question?'" Arthur counseled.

"I love apple pie and I love my wife, but I assure you it is not the same emotion," Arthur said, his voice rising a notch to suggest the conclusion was at hand. "So tonight, take your wife in your arms and say 'I prefer you,' not I love you.' That will cause some sort of reaction."

But the many giffaws Arthur produced were not the reason he won.

Toastmasters guides speeches according to eight standards speech development, effectiveness, idea and logic, physical appearance, flexibility and volume, manner, approrpriateness and correctness. If the audience laughs or buys your sales product, or votes for you, or gives you the promotion you want, it is more a result of how you said it than of what you said.

Nor does the purpose have to be getting ahead.

Bonnie Barber, runnerup to Arthur at the southern division's speak-off, joined Toastmasters because she suspected that speaking better would help her handle "lots of sticky situations at work."

Barber, 25, is a civilian personnel specialist with the Army Intelligence and Security Command. Too often, she said, the pressures of her job would find her "swallowing words, getting flustered, too many 'ahs' and 'ums.'

"I thought it would ba good experience for me, and it has," said Barber. "I'm so much more polished. Now I'm good in impromptu situations.

"Nervous? Oh, yes, I still get nervous. But that just gets the adrenalin going. Now I know I can do it."

One other thing Washington Toastmasters know they can do is win international titles.

Charles Bryant, an Annandale public relations consultant, is a former international Toastmaster champion. And just this past summer, Evelyn-Jane Davis of Springfield, Va., a blind attorney for the Internal Revenue Service, won the same title. She was the first woman to do so.

But titles are one thing; improvement of any kind is another. The Sid Arthurs, who have progressed to the point where they take part in Toastmasters contests, know the worst is behind them. But they seldom forget where they came from.

"I see people all the time who simply cannot do this," said one Toastmasters official. "And they won't work at it, either. Maybe the best thing about it is knowing you only have to try."