How to Make Sure that Your Toastmasters Experience Doesn’t Suck

November 28, 2010

Summary:
Toastmasters focuses too much on nonverbal communication and not enough on speech content. When you speak, have a genuine conversation with individuals. Avoid delivering a dramatic-acting monologue.


J.J. Abrams, the writer and director of TV’s Lost, shared his “mystery box” at the TED conference. Did he follow all of the Toastmasters’ speaking rules during his presentation?

Don’t know, don’t care. His talk was awesome. Period.

Despite everything that I like about Toastmasters (TM) I’ve felt some reservations since joining a TM club a few months ago.

I didn’t want to jump to any hasty conclusions but I just read a fair and perceptive review of TM called How to get the most out of Toastmasters.

It’s written by Olivia Mitchell, a presentations trainer and the author of the superlative blog Speaking about Presenting. Olivia was a Toastmaster for 8 years.

Like Olivia, I recommend TM for just about anyone who is looking to improve their ability to speak, to run a meeting, or to lead.

But asking a member of TM what they think of the TM organization is like asking a Christian what they think of the Bible: You’re going to get a biased answer.

As a former TM, Olivia offers a candid account of what’s good and what’s useless about TM. Most importantly, she shows you how to get the most of out TM.


2 Bad Habits that Toastmasters Encourages

  1. TM has got me focusing too much on the more superficial aspects of speaking — like body language. I rehearse my body language a lot yet I haven’t given enough attention to what matters most: having genuine conversations with individuals.
  2. I’m becoming preoccupied with performing instead of communicating and connecting. What’s the difference? Well here’s a speech that won a TM humorous speech contest. I couldn’t watch it in its entirety because it’s annoying. And I doubt that this speech would get many laughs outside of TM.

But for communicating and connecting, how about Dave Eggers’ TED Talk called Once Upon a School? It’s much funnier than that TM speech, too.1


3 Troubling Things about Toastmasters

  1. Many speeches that win TM speech contests are more shtick than meaningful message. This irks me. I didn’t join TM to learn gimmicks. I joined TM to learn how to make a sincere impact on people. When TM awards silly performances, it encourages phony routines instead of real conversations.
  2. Few TM have looked at presentation resources outside of TM. They can recite the TM mission statement like it’s a prayer, yet they haven’t even heard of TED talks or Presentation Zen, and they think that “death by PowerPoint” occurs when the speaker is electrocuted by her laptop.
  3. Our club loses potential new members because our club is perceived as stilted. To our meetings’ guests we look like the Borg creatures from Star Trek:

We are the TM. Surrender your unique communication methods. We will add your speaking distinctiveness to our collective. Your presentation style will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

You can see why some guests are retorting:

Um, thanks, but no thanks. Don’t call me… and I won’t call you either.

But let’s not throw away the proverbial baby with the bath water. No organization, including TM, is perfect.

Let’s absorb all the best aspects of TM while sharing with our fellow club members some things that we learn outside of TM.


2 Tips for Toastmasters

  1. Tape your TM speeches and put them on YouTube. Knowing that you’re going to share your presentation with the world will encourage you to do a better job.
  2. Ask people outside of TM to watch the videos of your speeches. Ask for candid feedback on whether your talk was interesting and helpful, or if it was boring and useless. Ask what they liked the most, what was confusing or off-putting, and what idea or feeling they took away from the speech.


TM isn’t bad. TM isn’t a cult. TM is actually pretty damn great.

Like most organizations, TM simply has some outmoded traditions.

And to paraphrase Gandhi, it’s up to us to be the difference that we want to see in our clubs.

Check out Olivia’s article and use TM as a tool to reach your own speaking and leadership goals — regardless of whether they’re in sync with the TM program.

No one can tell you what path is best for you. Following your own path is better than being forced to adhere to a TM Track that isn’t a perfect fit for you.

Here’s to you getting the most out of TM and to you being a unique contributer to your TM club.

Your turn: am I totally right or totally crazy?

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  1. Megan Morris is another TM who is trying to shape TM to be more like Ted Talks. []

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Nelson November 28, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I really enjoyed the JJ Abrams TED talk – I got to see it live, and it sparked several conversations around the fire at the conference: if you use one of those genetic testing kits like http://23andme.com (one of the TED gifts that year) how much do you want to know, how much stays in a mystery box? If you find out who the daughter given up for adoption 25 years ago is now (one in the group had) – do you make contact, or is it a mystery box? To me, great presentations are about connections you can draw that engage the audience to think in new ways.

If you like Presentation Zen, I’d highly recommend Nancy Duarte’s new book “Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences” http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0470632011/ – a followup to “Slide:ology”. Nancy is responsible for some of the best TED talks, which are illustrated in the book.

I’ve never done ToastMasters, but was in a SpeechCraft class many years ago.

Reply

Marianna November 29, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Great post Kevin. I’ve heard so many great reviews about Toast Masters, but never got to sign up. We learned a lot of presentation skills in MBET and it seemed that practice in front of the mirror did the most for me.

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Kevin Kane November 29, 2010 at 4:52 pm

@Steve Nelson Steve, I’m jealous that you’ve been to TED!

Thanks for recommending Duarte’s new book. I read some reviews on Amazon. It seems we should read Resonate first, to understand audiences and how to tell them a story, and then we can read Slide:ology or another book about PowerPoint design.

I’ll check it out, thanks!

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Kevin Kane November 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm

@Marianna Marianna, I think you’d like Toastmasters if you want to practice making more presentations.

It’s a safe environment for experimenting with your style.

I always smile a lot when I rehearse in the mirror, but I forget to smile when I speak to an audience. Next time I present, I’m going to put a smiley face in front of my laptop or something.

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Richard I. Garber January 1, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Kevin:

I found this excellent post via your comment on Lisa Braithwaite’s
December 16 post on What’s the point of speech contests?: http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/2010/12/whats-point-of-speech-contests.html

You’re mostly right, and not mostly crazy. Toastmasters (TM) is so big that it changes very slowly, but it does change eventually. Give to it what time you can, and take from it what you need to learn.

I’ve been a Toastmaster for about 3-1/2 years, and was Vice President-Education of my club for two years in a row. When I took that role I started blogging about Joyful Public Speaking at: http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/

Don’t ever assume that TM has The One True Answer on anything. You and your readers might also enjoy reading two of James Feudo’s posts about TM on his Overnight Sensation blog:

How to get the most out of your Toastmasters experience, May 7, 2008:
http://blog.jvf.com/2008/05/07/tips-for-toastmasters-how-to-get-the-most-out-of-your-toastmasters-experience/
and What I hate about Toastmasters: September 26, 2010:
http://blog.jvf.com/2010/09/26/what-i-hate-about-toastmasters/
James talks about Know-It-Alls, and you can see an example in my blog post on July 12, 2009: http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/07/visit-from-lecternpodium-police-patrol.html

Toastmasters isn’t just the Competent Communication (CC) manual, any more than being in the military is only like basic training. Unfortunately many people stop when they finish their CC.

The real fun comes later in the advanced manuals, some of which have longer speeches including discussion and role play. See this list at:
http://www.toastmasters22.org/manual_projects_details.html

Olivia’s comments about not having opportunities to present longer speeches are addressed later on the Communication track. Each of the next three levels calls for completing two advanced manuals (with five speeches each). For Advanced Communicator Bronze (ACB) that’s all. But, for Advanced Communicator Silver (ACS) you also have to give a pair of 10 to 15 minute educational presentations from either the Better Speaker Series or the Successful Club Series. See my August 13, 2010 post: http://joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/08/add-your-unique-perspective-to-topic.html

Advanced Communicator Gold (ACG) also requires conducting a Success/Communication program, or a Success/Leadership program, or a Youth Leadership program. Those programs require at least a one hour long presentation. A Youth Leadership program calls for a very serious commitment: it has eight one-to-two hour long sessions. I spoke to a group of middle school students as part of one session run by one of our ACGs.

Reply

Kevin Kane January 1, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Hi Richard,

Wow. Your comment is the kind that a writer dreams of getting. Thank you!

I commented on a few of your articles, too.

I’ve commented on several articles by James Fuedo, as well. I like that he encourages Toastmasters to speak outside of Toastmasters. We’ll learn more by doing that.

Until we’ve been paid to make a speech, we can’t claim to have any speaking expertise, really.

What did you speak about to the middle-school students? I’ve facilitated 5 three-hour workshops for Junior Achievement: http://www.kevinkane.com/2010/07/5-proven-benefits-from-volunteering-with%C2%A0junior%C2%A0achievement/

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KCL February 11, 2011 at 9:41 pm

My experience with TM, like Kevin has experienced, is that most people will never want to evaluate on content. Instead, they like to focus on mechanical flaws, e.g., voice variety, hand gestures, body movement.

Of course, this is inevitable. Mechanics is mostly objective and it is easy to judge and compare. On the other hand, what interests me may not interest you. For instance, I was at a district speech contest once and the winning speaker literally recited peotry, jumped on top of a chair, lied down and sang songs. What was the speech about? I had no idea. The only thing I kept hearing was “war is hell.” In my opinion, that was one hollow speech but the judges disagreed with me. Who knows, maybe poettry was interesting to the judges or the mechanics were so good the content did not matter.

I suspect that if you, like I, find some of the emphasis on these mechanical details unhelpful. However, sometimes we should take a step back and ask the question: Maybe you found the speech dull and too much of a performance, but maybe someone else enjoyed the speech regardless of the content?

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Kevin Kane February 11, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Hi KCL,

You’re right. Whatever speech wins is the one that the judges most enjoyed.

But these judges — or the judging criteria — are disconnected from the real world. In the real world, these superficial speeches don’t work.

For proof, watch this entertaining yet shallow venture capital pitch on Dragon’s Den.

This presenter would win a Toastmasters contest! But to the venture capitalists, he merely has an infectious attitude with no substance behind it. He is rejected.

Do we really want to encourage the kind of silliness that you saw in that District contest? Please tell me that we aren’t this shallow.

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KCL February 14, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Hi Kevin,

We are both on the same page that this overemphasis on mechanical aspects is alarming. What is really puzzling me is why such a perspective is entrenched in TM. This is not just something that “experienced” toastmasters do. I saw people who had just joined going on about vocal variety and “moving around more”. Perhaps the best explanation is your awesome Borg reference. Those that join, accept the mentality and follow the pack. Those that disagree, tend not to join in the first place.

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Kevin Kane February 14, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Hi KCL,

“Performing” rather than “connecting” is the Toastmasters way.

This problem is epidemic in Toastmasters clubs across the world, from ours in Canada to the one Olivia Mitchell was involved with in New Zealand.

See the comments by Olivia and me at http://speakingaboutpresenting.com/delivery/unlearning-presenting/

I think you’re right that people either agree with the Toastmaster status quo, or they just don’t join or they drop out.

For example, Megan Morris in Texas could be a voice for constructive change in Toastmasters, but she just hasn’t found a club yet that supports her ideas.

Ah well, we’ll continue to fight the good fight! :) And I’m speaking more outside of Toastmasters, too, to keep testing what works in the “real world.”

KCL, your comments are great. I really appreciate them. Thank you.

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Marc Koetzle April 13, 2011 at 1:07 am

Hi Kevin,

Great post. I have heard of TM through friends who have joined. I’d like to venture a reason why performance is ‘valued’ over connection…schtick, unlike content, can be evaluated without too much argument.

We can all agree when someone’s voice wavers or their hands are too flappy. But we cannot all agree on content for the reason several other comments noted: we’re not all interested in the same things. My puerile observations on TM are, aside from inexperienced, highly debatable…we won’t agree; let’s focus on my spelling.

Technique is politically safe; content could be a pandora’s box.

Love the new website!
Marc

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Kevin Kane May 31, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Hi Marc,

I just heard a talk last night that had great form but lacked substance. The speaker used attractive PowerPoint and spoke articulately.

But she didn’t share any remarkable stories about her experiences. So the speech didn’t emotionally resonate with the audience.

For my next speech, I’m working with a friend to help me edit my content before I deliver the talk. I can’t have a great speech without great content! :)

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