Over on Quora in the broad Public Speaking area you can’t move without someone extolling Toastmasters.
Have nerves? Lack confidence? Join Toastmasters! Need to practise your oratory away from a mirror? Join Toastmasters!
What is this phenomenon?
The fons et origo:
Do you want to become a confident public speaker and strong leader? If so, Toastmasters is the place for you. You’ll find a supportive learn-by-doing environment that allows you to achieve your goals at your own pace.
Here’s the history of this nearly 100 years old institution. It was set up by and for men in 1928 in the USA. Women were allowed to join in 1973. Now there are 16,400 clubs in 141 countries and over 350,000 members. They must be on to something significant.
Lo! it came about that last night I visited my friendly neighbourhood Toastmasters group. I did not announce myself as a speechwriter of sorts – merely a curious civilian. I was generously welcomed and sat down to watch the proceedings. Some 30 people were there.
The first really remarkable thing about this TM session (and I gather it’s not untypical) is how organised it was. Part of the TM method is learning how to stick to time limits. So the evening’s 90-minute agenda was spelled out in minute-by-minute format.
This worked because the session was divided into micro-segments that allowed of lots different TM members to say at least something to the throng. P opens the event and introduces Q who explains the format of the evening before handing to R who sets the scene for S who is then evaluated by T and so on. Much US-style clapping at each stage: reinforce positivity!
The first ‘Table Topics’ exercise was unambiguously good – and testing. Four TM members in turn approached the front, took a Scrabble letter from a bag, then talked for two minutes on a subject of their choice beginning with the letter they’d picked. No preparation! Just talk. Someone at the back signalled how their allotted time was passing.
The results were of course mixed in terms of fluency, coherence and usefulness, although no-one who did it got lost for words or babbled uselessly.
This spontaneous speaking tests ability to start strongly, find and run with a theme with no notice, and draw things to a tidy conclusion. But it also smokes out who knows what they’re doing in public speaking – who has a sense of organising and simplifying thoughts in a strong sensible way. One Table Topics speaker last night gave the best speech of the whole evening, with no preparation at all. Cool.
This was followed by Evaluation (ie thoughts from a TM member on the strengths and not-so-strengths of each speaker) and a vote from the floor on who did the best job. At Toastmasters nothing passes unevaluated.
The main part of the evening ensued. Four prepared speeches of some six minutes each. Two speakers were giving their first TM speech. Two others were practising ideas from the TM Manual, and had asked their Evaluators to look out for specific points (eg body language, use of notes, structure etc).
These speeches passed off to more generous applause and were each duly evaluated by a TM member. Then the evening as a whole and the several evaluators were all Evaluated. Quis evalua ipsos evaluatores?
Someone else pointed out in detail how far the different speakers had used verbal tics (umm, errr, you know, like etc). It was asserted that some speakers had shown ‘eloquence’ by using long unusual words like serendipitous (whereas of course using such such words does not show ‘eloquence’ at all).
Top Evaluator and top Speaker of the day! Come to lots more TM sessions in 2018! Learn! Practise! Lead! All done! Applause!
It’s more than clear that Toastmasters is a good way to practise some public speaking basics. Where else can you get up in front of people and have a go in a friendly self-help organised environment? It’s not even expensive.
However, as a way to learn about public speaking and move swiftly to AMAZING, it seems … odd.
At no point last night was there any wider discussion or analysis involving the actual audience about what had worked and why, or not. The consequence of having a bizarrely tight choreographed format as part of a wider TM Method is that there is no spontaneity or scope for exploration. Yes, lots of different people get to say something to the group. Applause! But how far are they really saying it well? How might those words have been prepared and delivered differently to far better effect? Is that a good way to learn what’s going on and how to improve? Not really.
The most striking thing about all the evaluating was that (as I saw it) it was largely evaluating the wrong things. The focus was on the superficial form (get a ‘hook’ to start a speech; tell a story; sum up; no verbal fumbles) as opposed to the underlying structure of the argument: the content-in-itself, and how best to convey it. Key problems with some speeches (namely that they made almost no sense or were self-contradictory) were not mentioned.
Likewise there was no proper analysis of how fast the different speakers were speaking, where exactly the speech engaged the audience or lost the audience, and why that had happened. Most of the people who had prepared their speeches did not know how to structure an argument for a speech and had no sense of how many words they needed for the time available, so in different ways control was lost. An easy one to fix, but not fixed last night.
There was one prepared speech that stood out in terms of Toastmasterly delivery (lots of energy, pauses, emphasis) but it was clunkily over-engineered on different levels: the content lurched in a clichéd way to being far too ‘structured’ for the time available. Nor did it tackle properly its own subject. Applause!
When people appear on my classes who have been through some TM sessions, there’s usually a breezy sense of confidence (good) but an artificial ‘public-speaking-by-numbers’ style (annoying). Straighten that out and that they quickly get far better.
Let’s be realistic. 350,000 people are unlikely to join one of my classes and learn in a matter of hours how to be Amazing. So Toastmasters may be the next best alternative.
But from what I have seen, there is lots of unused scope for taking the good TM basic format and using it to accelerate learning and insight. Why go through months of TM sessions and supposedly methodical stages trying to reach a really good level when most of that can be learned in a couple of days?