Some time ago, I rejoined a local Toastmasters club after a hiatus of some twelve years. Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational speakers’ organization offering a rich arena for its members to develop connection, confidence, and clarity, and also have some fun. These are life skills worth cultivating. Membership fees are low, which makes the organization open to almost everyone.
Toastmasters International was founded by Ralph C Smedley in 1905. That it’s thriving today around the world has much to say about its underlying principles of self-help, communication, and leadership.
Public speaking: fear and trembling
There’s a lot of anxious whispering about how terrifying it is to speak in public, particularly speaking in front of one’s peers. And this is true. Showing up for the first time to a Toastmasters club is an act of courage. Guests are usually encouraged to visit local clubs, and there’s no obligation to participate.
I’ve seen new members grow in confidence and mastery. I’ve seen a guest shakily get to his feet barely able to stammer out his name only to win a humorous speech contest three months later.
I’ve seen a woman so nervous she burst into tears giving her first speech. But with the support of the group, she summoned up the courage to come back and succeed.
Toastmasters meetings are safe places in which to develop your communication and leadership skills. Members learn from each other. But this is not the blind leading the blind. Toastmasters has a highly structured approach to gaining communication and leadership skills. And structure, whether writing a book or giving a speech, is what gives communication its coherence.
Purpose and persuasion
Every speech has a purpose, and that varies by the occasion. You may simply want to entertain your audience or convince your listeners to take a decision or motivate them to action.
A three-act communication structure is often used by speakers who want to drive a message home. Tell them what you will tell them, tell them what you’re telling them, and tell them what you’ve just told them. This structure comes from classical rhetoric used to persuade the citizenry of ancient Athens.
Everyone needs to persuade. It was true thousands of years ago. It’s true today. At Toastmasters you learn how to connect with your audience. There are opportunities for new members to take on meeting roles, and eventually, run a club meeting. Speaking is an art, but it’s not without method. No matter how accomplished you become, there’s always room for further development.
Toastmasters meetings are timed and have an agenda. Meetings usually last an hour, although some clubs have longer sessions. Like the theater, some clubs close their doors after the meeting starts. Toastmasters meetings start and stop on time.
How often does that happen in the corporate world?
New members are encouraged to give speeches, but not before they are ready. Members follow an online educational program called Pathways. Each lesson focuses on a particular skill.
The first speech in the series is called The Ice Breaker. It’s about you. Its purpose is to get you speaking in front of a group, and lasts four to six minutes. Feedback is given by members who take on the role of ‘speech evaluator’ who give guidance for improvement and identify what you did well.
New members can usually find a mentor in their club. This one-on-one guidance would cost thousands of dollars elsewhere, but for Toastmasters members it’s free.
Guests turn into members for many reasons. Workplaces demand employees give presentations or at least meaningful input to group meetings. People new to leadership positions can hone their collaboration and communication skills and receive feedback.
Toastmasters is a place to have fun. It’s social. At my previous club, we had the occasional picnic and party. On one occasion part of our club went skydiving. My wife and I were married by a government undercover agent we met through our Toastmasters club. There’s the possibility of finding new friends. Joining a Toastmasters club gives you an opportunity to step away from a physically disconnected virtual world, and connect with live human beings.