Thoughts on Toastmasters?
April 2, 2007 6:54 AM   Subscribe

Should I join Toastmasters?

Is Toastmasters worth it? My idle googlefinger has unearthed a local club within easy walking distance. It's 2 Tuesday evenings a month and seems to have homework.

I am a busy activist who will be shortly working a full time job as well. I absolutely adore public speaking and am very good at it according to other people. Public speaking is a big part of my activist work, and increased communication skills will benefit all parts of my life.

I'm looking to increase my consistency, clarity, and persuasiveness and to find and develop my own style. I'm looking to increase my capability of remembering facts, figures, and arguments without notes. Will Toastmasters do this?

Comments from people who've participated in Toastmasters would be especially appreciated.
posted by By The Grace of God to Human Relations (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
My partner was in Toastmasters as a teen and loved it. It really increased her confidence. That said, it doesn't seem like confidence is what you need, so it may not do you much good. With that said, it's a fun, social, outing with a potential side effect of improving your public speaking. How could you lose? Go to a few meetings (they love guests) and find out for yourself if it seems right for you.
posted by arcticwoman at 7:02 AM on April 2, 2007

Toastmasters runs on a fairly regimented set of steps taking you through some very basic skills that might start out being below your current level. For me, it was great, because I had no speaking skills at all, but for you, it might seem mickey mouse to begin. On the other hand, you'll get the chance to make a lot of speeches, and you may be able to tailor that to your own goals. Eventually you do progress to higher levels and get the chance to go to competitions, but it's all based on this slightly odd/slightly cult-like incentive status system that I never really understood. I felt like there might be some weird multi-level marketing scheme embedded in it somewhere, but maybe I'm just paranoid that way.

Also, Toastmasters tends to attract a lot of Tony Robbins motivational speaker wannabes who can be quite annoying and strange to those of us who simply want to learn how to not be terrified when making a presentation.
But each individual club has a different mix of people and goals, so if you don't like one, try another.
posted by footnote at 7:05 AM on April 2, 2007

My workplace has a Toastmasters. I went to an orientation meeting and I was kind of interested (despite, or possibly because of, being deathly afraid of public speaking) but there was one thing that kept me away: Other people's speeches. If you can stand to hear rank amateurs give awful speeches, TM will probably help you. Otherwise, it will be painful, painful, painful.
posted by DU at 7:10 AM on April 2, 2007

Doesn't sound like you need help, so learn by experience. Don't be one of those creepy motivational speaker types.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:14 AM on April 2, 2007

My husband has been part of a Toastmasters club for about two years. He, like you, does a lot of public speaking and has always felt quite comfortable with this and is quite good at it. From what I saw at the meetings I went to, that seems to be fairly typical of the group - people who are good and want to get better. He says that the main thing that it did for him was got him to a point of feeling perfectly comfortable with spontaneous public speaking -- any discomfort that he had is completely gone. The meetings are very much geared towards practice and feedback. He also found it to be a nice interesting group of people and that was a bonus.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:22 AM on April 2, 2007

Go now.
Decide later.
Good luck!
posted by Dizzy at 7:26 AM on April 2, 2007

I'm currently an Area Governor for Toastmasters. I started out in the program because I was terrified of speaking in public and I've gotten a lot out of it. A lot of the people in Toastmasters are actually professional speakers, in fact I belong to an Advanced Club and about 1/3 of our members are professionals. I also know a number of professionals in regular clubs as well.

The basic manual is based around 10 speeches and each speech introduces a new skill. As an experienced speaker many of those skills will be familiar to you but I've never met anybody who hasn't found an area to improve. The most important part is the feedback you will receive and here is where club selection is important. You'll want to find a club that has several members who are skilled speakers. They will be able to gear their evaluations towards your skill level.

I gear my evaluations towards the skill level of the speaker, there's no point in tearing a nervous speaker to shreds in their first speech - they won't return. It's also not beneficial to treat a professional speaker like a neophyte, they won't get any value out of the program.

Each club has it's own personality, talk to your Area Governor to find one that fits you. If you want, email me and I can find out who your Area Governor is.
posted by substrate at 7:28 AM on April 2, 2007

Also, there are advanced manuals which have 5 speeches focused around specific goals: motivation, persuasive speaking, technical presentations and so on. I really enjoy those manuals but the basic manual is fun because you can fit anything into it. I'm currently doing a couple advanced manuals and am redoing my basic manual (with a much more rigorous evaluation).
posted by substrate at 7:31 AM on April 2, 2007

Toastmasters may seem a little beneath you at the beginning levels--but a lot of Toastmasters who have been at it for years go back to those introductory speeches ad do them over again. Because, while they're geared toward new speakers who need the basics, they're also general enough to be well suited to a more advanced speaker.

As an example, there's a speech on using body movement and gestures in the initial 10 speeches. For a lot of new, nervous speakers, that speech is the first time they try talking without white knuckles clutching the podium for support. For more experienced speakers, it's a chance to practice more advanced elements. How do you integrate gestures so they don't seem rehearsed? How do you use the whole space of a room to your advantage? How big or small should my gestures be? You can explore how your own style uses these skills.

A lot of Toastmasters is structured around giving and receiving feedback to other members. If you're one of the most advanced speakers in your club, it can sometimes seem like the feedback you're getting isn't all that helpful--but you can help guide that, too.

When I was active in Toastmasters, I occasionally taught an evaluation workshop, and one of the points I always made was that everyone, no matter their level of skill as a speaker, is qualified as an evaluator. Because you may have never set foot on a podium before, but you've damn sure sat in a zillion audiences.

You may have to put more effort into coaching your evaluators to get the feedback you want. Be sure to speak to them before the meeting to tell them what aspects of each project you are focusing on, and what you want them to watch for. If your club has everyone provide a short written feedback form for the speaker, ask your evaluator to emphasize your priorities when he talks about the objectives prior to the speech, rather than just listing the ones in the book.

The other thing to remember, is that Toastmasters is far more than the weekly/bi-weekly meetings with your own club. There are some spectacular speakers and some spectacular speaking opportunities in the organization. You can get involved in myriad things outside your immediate club:

- giving speeches at other clubs
- competing in speech competitions
- giving target speeches for evaluation competitions (this is *great* because it means you'll get half a dozen verbal evaluations from some of the best evaluators in your area)
- presenting education sessions at conferences or leadership training sessions
- organizing or speaking at conferences or training sessions

To some extent, Toastmasters teaches a particular style--it's most observable in the structure of the speeches, since they emphasize certain formalities. You might need to adapt that style to the style you want to present, or just be cognisant of where the Toastmasters formalities aren't appropriate to your outside speaking functions. But learning how to integrate the good parts of Toastmasters formalities in a natural way is actually very useful.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:38 AM on April 2, 2007

In my workplace, Toastmasters is essentially where meek secretaries to go to feel important. Sounds mean, but that's basically it. Parliamentary procedure, Sergeant at Arms, reading of the minutes, all of that stuff. Random speech topics. Went once and didn't go back. Can't speak for any other groups, however. The people in it really recommend it, but like others have said here, maybe it's not something you need. Couldn't hurt to check it out.
posted by kookoobirdz at 9:09 AM on April 2, 2007

Wanted to add an additional note: Toastmasters clubs will let you attend at least 2 meetings without joining or paying a fee. Go there and see what they do, and see if it seems like something you would enjoy and find valuable.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:38 AM on April 2, 2007

Executive summary: Yes.

I am currently a member and a club officer (VP Education) in our relatively new Toastmasters club (almost a year old).

To answer your questions in order:

Is Toastmasters worth it?

Well, to me it's a extraordinarily small money and time investment for a large gain in ability. Luckily, though, it's extremely easy to simply attend as a guest and see for yourself. If that goes well, join for six months and see if that goes well, etc. There's really no downside for failure here.

I'm looking to increase my consistency, clarity, and persuasiveness[...]Will Toastmasters do this?

Your second speech title in the first handbook you work through is is "Organize Your Speech." The third, "Get to the Point." The ninth, "Persuade with Power". So, I personally think that Toastmasters can help you, yes. :)

In addition there are myriad opportunities for impromptu speaking. There are advanced manuals with specific situations such as sales, eulogies(!), humorous speaking--the whole gamut, really. The printed material received (manuals, magazine, etc.) I've found to be pretty consistently useful and well done.

In my position as VP of Education I've really found that there are a bunch of reasons that people join. Some are just looking to not be scared. Some are experienced speakers looking for more practice and to polish certain things.

Personally, I used to do a lot of prepared speeches but I'm horrible at extemporaneous speaking. Or rather, I was horrible, because I'm getting better with practice. The impromptu bits help me organize my thoughts quickly enough (it's not fear as much as not getting what I want to say together fast enough). There's not generally a debate format where you have to remember what the other person said as far as their argument, but there's plenty of opportunities for speaking off-the-cuff in either your speech projects, (spoken) evaluations of speeches (1-2 minutes), the so-called "Table Topics" (speak briefly on a random topic), and even meeting reports such as speech timer, grammarian (listen for grammar usage), etc. But it apparently has not helped me with my rambling sentence structure. Hemingway, I am not.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:49 AM on April 2, 2007

My grandfather has been a Toastmasters member in Florida for years. He's always had good things to say about it, and he's definitely an entertaining speaker. If I were you, I'd go for it. If nothing else, practice makes perfect.

As a matter of fact, you've inspired me to look for such a group in my area. Thanks!
posted by ElfWord at 11:10 AM on April 2, 2007

I went as a guest to 3 groups in my area before I found one that felt to me like I could learn from the people there. One group seemed to be mostly about Robert's Rules (fine for them, not for me). One contained too many dominating personalities for my taste. At another, members' feedback responding to speeches struck me as timid, vague, and largely content-free (positive + incisive feedback is an art form, and I treasure my Toastmasters experience for the opportunity to learn and practice that, as much as for the speaking skills). It's not a coincidence that the speeches were uninspired and uninspiring and the whole vibe of this club was painfully awkward.

So it's absolutely critical to check out different clubs. Do people seem energized or asleep? Does the speech feedback inspire and motivate the speaker and give clear suggestions for improvement appropriate for the speaker's level, or is it mickey mouse, or suffocatingly criticizing? Are the meetings well run? etc.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:47 PM on April 2, 2007

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