Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Toastmasters - Red Coat or Red Herring

I was recently invited to guest blog on why I like Toastmasters. So here it is.

When I was first asked if I was interested in joining Toastmasters I instantly imagined formidable and pompous gentlemen in red tuxedos toasting the queen and her realms and territories. But my vision was far from reality, the red coat is a red herring.

My inaugural visit to Berkhamsted Toastmasters was to the “humorous speaking contest” – an evening of pre-prepared, often amusing and often just weird, presentations on a wide variety of subjects. One of the speeches that I still clearly recall detailed what happens after the coffin goes beyond the curtains at a crematorium. The speaker regaled us with how the coffin is re-used and the poor departed repays society as the latest bio-fuel. This is black humour by any standards, and I’m an avid fan of “the league of gentlemen”.

But the content of the speeches only contributes a fraction to a Toastmasters evening. What became clear very quickly was the support offered to the speakers and the camaraderie amongst them. A few of the speakers were old lags now working through their Advanced Communicator manual and a few were fairly new to public speaking. What they had in common was that most had begun as nervous or shy speakers that had gradually gained confidence and skill in presenting since joining Toastmasters. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, joined the club and am now working my way through the Competent Communicator (CC) manual.

As well as being enjoyable, Toastmasters has structure – structure that has been tried and tested, and developed, since 1924. A typical club evening consists of 1) three or four prepared speeches followed by 2) “table topics” and then followed by 3) evaluations.
  1. Those joining Toastmasters are provided with a CC manual and mentor. The manual provides advice on speaking delivered in 10 easy chapters – each chapter focuses on a specific presentation skill, such as “vocal variety” and “inspiring your audience”. The speech can be on any topic but should address the skill highlighted in the chapter. The member reads the chapters at their own pace and then when ready prepares and presents a speech to demonstrate their new learned skill.
  2. Table topics are, for most, the most challenging part of the evening. The “Table Topics Master” introduces subject matter for speeches then choses a random member from the audience to present on it for 1-2 minutes. Although this sounds like utter madness the aim to help people think on their feet. This is great practice for receiving questions after a presentation or for general impromptu communication such as interviews and pitches.
  3. After a short refreshment break each speech is evaluated, whether prepared or impromptu. The feedback is generally positive scattered with a view recommendations for improvement. I have found this instant and continuous feedback highly beneficial in improving my presentation skills. For completeness the evaluators are also evaluated – so everyone is on their best behaviour. Toastmasters take it in turn to evaluate each other, as being able to provide good feedback and motivate people is just another good life skill.
Prior to Toastmasters I had been on a few one day presentation courses, costing between £1,000 and £1,500. These courses are usually simultaneously hard work and good fun, but my problem is that I may not get the opportunity to present until sometime after the course and by then would have forgotten what I learned. The beauty of Toastmasters is that it is continuous development. I learn a specific skill, test it out in a speech and then get live feedback, and I do this monthly (little and often) and all for £100 per year.

I also like that I am not practicing my presentations in front of my professional peer group. This has two advantages: 1) if I screw up my professional image is not dented, and 2) if those not in my profession understand what I am talking about and I retain their interest then I know my peer group will get it too.

In addition to honing my presentation skills I have met new people (now friends) from a wide variety of backgrounds, I have heard a wide range of views and opinions and I have learned a lot of new useful stuff I had not taken any notice of before.

So go on join one of the 13,500 Toastmasters clubs or better still join my local club. You will be made welcome, be challenged and be entertained. Leave a comment below if you have any queries regarding Toastmasters. 

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