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

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.


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?