How can I make Toastmasters work for me?
June 2, 2016 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I joined Toastmasters and I'm worried I made a horrible mistake. I would love to be able to speak naturally about my work in front of colleagues, without hemming and hawing and saying "like" and "um" and talking too fast and getting nervous and flustered. I do not want to become a motivational speaker. How do I achieve the former without ending up sounding like the latter?

I'm a therapist. Sounding natural and sincere is an absolute requirement for my work. I watched Speak a few days ago, to make sure that it wasn't just that the members of my local Toastmasters club had some weird shared style, and the documentary confirmed that my fellow Toastmasters are definitely following the normal Toastmasters' style. This is not a style I want to adopt, even unconsciously. The overdramatic vocal changes, the overdramatic pauses, the overdramatic acting -- I used to be a tour guide, I get that there are definitely appropriate places for those things, but my work is not one of them.

Can I still do Toastmasters? I wrote it into my six-month career goals and work is paying for my membership, so I feel like I should stick it out for at least six months, and I feel like I should actively participate if I'm going to be there for the next six months. I did my first speech and the feedback was basically that it wasn't personal and dramatic enough. I don't want to be personal and dramatic. I want to be able to give straightforward presentations to colleagues and the public. What's the best way to work on a natural, "like"-free, understandable speaking style within the Toastmasters' framework? ("Quit" is an acceptable answer, but I'd love other ones as well.)

And if people have non-Toastmasters suggestions for achieving my goals, I'd love to hear those, too.
posted by lazuli to Work & Money (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
(Oh, and if I do quit, my employer is unlikely to be particularly upset about it. I just feel like I made a commitment and should stick to it for the timeframe I agreed to.)
posted by lazuli at 8:15 PM on June 2, 2016


You could ignore the feedback, and just use it as an opportunity to speak, to an audience, regularly. You know if you're achieving what you want. The Toastmasters-specific feedback is probably not that important to your goals.

If you wanted, you could maybe see if you could talk some of the regulars into filling out some kind of short questionnaire to see if you got your main ideas across, but just the act of talking (when you're not used to it) is good practice.
posted by amtho at 8:21 PM on June 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


Toastmasters is definitely about refining what you want to work on. Give your goals clearly to your fellow Toastmasters and ask for feedback within those parameters. It can get a little bit into what the group thinks is good speaking styles (and leans heavily on the motivational speaker/TED Talk speaker style), but when I was in Toastmasters, there were a lot of folks who wanted to do things like be able to participate in Agile Scrums more effectively or to give training sessions a little bit more personality. It's definitely something you can make work for you.
posted by xingcat at 8:24 PM on June 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


I think there are few things that you could try:

1. Try addressing this question to one of the officers of your group, and when you give your next speech let your evaluator know what you are going for. It probably comes down to the ppl in your group and how flexible they are.

2. Even if you always get dinged for not being dramatic enough, you can still make all the speeches. I doubt anyone is going to insist you repeat a speech over it. I've known members who thought one preferred skill or attribute was BS or not part of their goals, and they were upfront about that and politely ignored any advise to the contrary, and kept progressing and making speeches. Also, in my experience every evaluator is different, some always think everyone should do X ... their opinions don't really hold a lot of weight as far as you making progress.

3. Try a few different groups, despite what you saw online every club is different and some are more flexible and diverse.

4. Learning to speak in a more dramatic way does not mean that you won't be able to speech in a more natural way when you need to, and it could still be a helpful thing to know.
posted by bunderful at 8:26 PM on June 2, 2016


4. Learning to speak in a more dramatic way does not mean that you won't be able to speech in a more natural way when you need to, and it could still be a helpful thing to know.

Just to address this -- I totally agree. But I'm actually fairly good at that, after acting for several years and working as a tour guide for a while. Give me a script, and I'm good to go. Where I stumble is in speaking as myself, rather than as a character, and I worry that doing the dramatic memorized thing is not going to help me practice the part that I suck at.
posted by lazuli at 8:30 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Some thoughts from a former Toastmaster (some info may be out of date as a result):

Does your group do Table Talk -- the little off-the-cuff 1-2 minute long speeches? Those are much more useful for practicing the kind of speaking you wish to do than the prepared speeches. If they do it on a volunteer basis, always volunteer. If they do it on a rota basis, take your turn and be willing to step in to fill holes, as well.

Also, volunteer for roles in the meeting -- when you're chairing the meeting or doing evaluations, things are much more casual and less stagey. It's a good chance to practice the natural speaking you'd like to do.

There are advanced manuals that are about things like interpersonal skills that involve practicing conversations. Also, technical presentations for technical presentations. Normally you don't start these until after you complete your first ten projects in the basic manual, but there's actually nothing stopping you from doing them instead of the basic speeches. You just won't get the Competent Toastmaster designation, but I imagine you don't care. Ask the VP-Ed if they have these manuals in the club, or if you can order them.

Also, talk to your VP-Ed and whoever is assigned to evaluate your speeches and let them know you're working on particular things -- eliminating ums and likes -- and want to aim style of speaking that is fairly low key. A good club will be able to adapt to your needs, even if it doesn't change the overall culture of the club.

Don't memorize your speeches. Don't even write them out in the first place. Even if you aim for drama in the delivery to satisfy your club's style, do it from outlined notes, not memorized paragraphs.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:34 PM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


If there's another club in your area you may want to check it out. My Toastmasters club is at my office and it's all software engineers and there isn't even a whiff of that hokey TED style. But when people come to visit from other area clubs I'm always like, "wow, these people are intense!"

I agree that there's no reason that you have to adhere to the "house style". Ultimately they can't make you change the way you speak. Doing Table Topics is a great way to get practice with extemporaneous speech as yourself; even better would be volunteering to be the evaluator for others' speeches, which allows you to practice extemporaneous constructive criticism and might also give you a chance to subtly influence others in your club not to lay on the motivational stuff so thickly.
posted by town of cats at 9:24 PM on June 2, 2016


Great comments so far, I'm going to review them for myself, thanks for the question. One thought, one persons dramatic is another's casual, perhaps find someone in the group you're comfortable with to review your perceptions of the feedback, you may be discounting some good advice. I'm totally with you about wanting a natural style but it's just like hating the sound of our voices in a recording, self estimates of drama are not always accurate.
posted by sammyo at 9:27 PM on June 2, 2016


non-Toastmasters suggestions

Go for coffee with friends who are naturally patient, interested, non-interrupting conversational partners, for whom precision is important. Talk to them in depth about your intellectual and artistic interests (and your work). A lot of people sort of talk over or bounce off each other, to a greater or lesser degree. There are a few rare gems who make a point of not only letting people finish their sentences, but offering their full attention for the duration, in a non-critical, non-competitive, engaged way. They really want to hear the whole of your thought, all the details, and will wait for you to do that. They'll ask questions. (I realize that this is what you do! I don't mean therapists. Just attentive conversational partners.) If you're out of the habit of talking about thinky things at length, call up some friends like that and catch up.

It's true - if you can clearly explain a thing to a kid (or teenager, or parent), you can explain it to anyone. See if you can get people like that interested in hearing about a subject you need to talk about professionally. Your colleagues will probably appreciate simplicity and clarity, too.

Do TED talks sort of exemplify the tone you're after? Maybe study a few. Prepare a presentation, just at home, and practice and deliver it like it's a TED talk.

Most university students are asked to do PowerPoint presentations for coursework, and honestly a lot of them get to be quite good at it by their 4th year, in that they learn to be succinct, and easy and natural in their delivery. Maybe take a uni or college course instead of doing Toastmasters? Either in delivering PP presentations or related (will help with planning structure, etc) or a substantive subject of interest (as long as the grade is based on least one formal presentation).

It sounds like Toastmasters is not really fitting the bill.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:28 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Toastmasters is very different from club to club; the club I was in was more corporate, so it wasn't very dramatic (though we heard some amazing stories). Campus clubs and community clubs all have a different vibe. I'd look around and see if there are other clubs near you, and what their focus is.

I agree that you should speak to the club's VP of Education, tell them what you want to accomplish, and ask if they have mentors who can work with you on it.
posted by mogget at 10:10 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


You will always need pauses when you speak even when speaking improv off the top of your head. The key is to come up with other words or phrases in that mental pause instead of "ummm."
posted by JJ86 at 9:08 AM on June 3, 2016


Everyone has different opinions about what makes a good speech. And, I think it depends on context, too. I think people will have different expectations based on the context - if they are in the role of an audience, a project team, or a patient.

In my Toastmaster's club, the speech evaluator always introduces the speaker. The evaluator frequently will read the title of the speech and the description in the manual. If that is how your club works, tell the evaluator to say that the setting for your speech is a one-on-one conversation with a professional colleague. I think that priming the conversation ahead of time should help them break away from the ted-talk-like style. If your club is the size of mine, it should only take a few meetings before this is drilled into their heads.

Also, good on you for having a goal! I think keeping that goal in mind will really help.
posted by rebent at 10:14 AM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


Looks like I will need to figure out who the VP of Education is (we just had elections, and I lost track of who got elected to what) and talk to them. That might at least help me figure out if this club is going to be able to help me with what I want to work on, and how to approach my evaluators or other club members about my goals.

There's only one other semi-local club (less than a 45-minute drive away), and two of the more "dramatic" people in my current club are also in that club (and one of them's the president), so I'm not sure if that's worth pursuing, but I may go check it out. I think there's only one other club that would work with my schedule, given distance plus meeting times, but I can probably check out that one, too.

Don't memorize your speeches. Don't even write them out in the first place. Even if you aim for drama in the delivery to satisfy your club's style, do it from outlined notes, not memorized paragraphs.

jacquilynne, thanks, that's helpful! I think because I write easily, that's very much the temptation I'm falling into, and it's leading me to sound overly scripted. (And yes, we do Table Topics, which I should volunteer more for, you're right.)

And thanks, all, for letting me know that not all is lost.
posted by lazuli at 10:14 AM on June 3, 2016


Or - join a book club. A good one, where you'll be expected to be careful and clear in explaining and defending interpretations.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:14 AM on June 3, 2016


If that is how your club works, tell the evaluator to say that the setting for your speech is a one-on-one conversation with a professional colleague. I think that priming the conversation ahead of time should help them break away from the ted-talk-like style. If your club is the size of mine, it should only take a few meetings before this is drilled into their heads.

Oh, my goodness, that's brilliant. (Our Toastmaster is the one to do the intros, but same concept.) Thank you!
posted by lazuli at 10:15 AM on June 3, 2016


Or - join a book club. A good one, where you'll be expected to be careful and clear in explaining and defending interpretations.

If I could find one here, I'd be a happy camper! The ones I've tried through Meetup have been very much of the "I liked this character because she was nice" variety.
posted by lazuli at 10:16 AM on June 3, 2016


As others have said, individual clubs can be very different in both the composition of their members and the tone of their talks. If you live in a place with multiple chapters, trying out a few different ones is worth doing.

Many years ago I got my CTA at a club that was both fairly casual and focused on data-rich presentations, with a high ratio of geeks and artists to professional salespeople. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a great deal. After switching cities, I tried several clubs and they all gave me the used-car-salesman shivers. As an academic, my goals were entirely incompatible with the qualities those clubs celebrated. (And the other talks were insufferable. Like TED but without even that much actual content.)

If you can't find a more appropriate club, then holding your nose and trying to get as much as you can out of the experience is worth a try. Six months isn't that many meetings. Table topics can be incredibly valuable, and beneath the sales-demo lacquer there's a lot of useful material in toastmasters with regard to body language, training yourself to pause in appropriate ways, etc.

At the very least, it's a chance to practice giving the talks you care about in front of a live (and even hostile) audience. Having someone keep an eye on your technical faults - counting "um"s - is worth a lot, even if they give you bad advice about the style of your talk. If all else fails, you can treat it as an anthropological expedition into the world of salespeople, which is more interesting than you might think. (Giving one of your later talks on a study of Toastmaster's culture would be great fun, if you're not too mean about it.)

As far as alternatives, I've found professional public outreach events incredibly helpful. I've learned a lot more from talking one-on-one with a senior group on a museum tour than I ever did from a Toastmasters speech evaluation. I'm not sure exactly what that would translate to for a therapist. But, if there are any community organizations you're a part of, volunteering to do tabling or advocacy for them isn't a bad idea. Going door to door for your favorite political candidate is awful, but extremely educational and possibly useful to the world.
posted by eotvos at 1:13 PM on June 4, 2016


So, it turns out the member with the most ridiculous over-the-top delivery is the VP of Education. I also had a bunch of personal and professional stuff kind of implode all at the same time, so I sent him an email saying both that I needed to take a break and that I wasn't sure the overall style of the club was a particularly good fit for what I needed professionally. His reply sounded like exactly the sort of motivational-speech banality that's been annoying me, even while saying that Toastmasters doesn't have a "style" and that I really just needed to find my confidence, so... I don't know. I'm definitely taking a break for a few months until the rest of my life settles down a bit, then I'll reassess.

All of your replies really helped me figure out what I do need, what wasn't working, and how to ask for what I needed. It's yet to be determined whether that club is capable of providing what I need. Thank you so much for your input, everyone!
posted by lazuli at 2:28 PM on July 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


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