How to get the most out of Toastmasters

toastmaster-logoToastmasters is a great organisation to join to get lots of speaking practice and increase your confidence. I was in Toastmasters for eight years and it made a huge difference to my life – I became a confident speaker, an effective social networker … and I met my husband there!

It makes a huge difference in many people’s lives. I saw shy, withdrawn people become chatty and confident. I saw unremarkable people transformed into inspiring leaders. If you’re thinking of joining Toastmasters to develop your public speaking and social confidence, I do recommend it. Find a club near you using Toastmasters club locator.

But when it comes to developing presentation skills for the business world, the Toastmasters programme suffers from two flaws:

  1. It overemphasises superficial skills – like body language and vocal variety – while ignoring critical skills – like developing a memorable message for your presentation.
  2. Once you have developed basic skills, the Toastmasters official programme does not include the learning experiences which can help you develop further.

Despite these flaws, Toastmasters does offer a lot. In this post, I’ll show how to get the most out of Toastmasters – both for new members and for experienced Toastmasters.

For new Toastmasters

1. Take every opportunity to speak

There are two parts to getting better as a speaker – speaking lots and getting feedback. Toastmasters is great for the first. You can speak at every meeting – whether it’s giving a prepared speech, practicing impromptu speaking, or evaluating another member’s speech (for more information see Toastmasters- How does it work).

2. Ignore your assigned evaluator (most of the time)

Virtually every time you give a speech in Toastmasters you are evaluated by another member. There are two reasons why you should take the feedback you’re given by your evaluator with a grain of salt:

  1. The beautiful thing about Toastmasters – that you’re all there to improve yourself and help each other – is also one of its flaws. Most Toastmasters are not experts at giving useful feedback.
  2. The evaluation of your speech is given within the same meeting. So the evaluator has limited time to consider their remarks and has to do it while the meeting is being conducted.

The result is that most evaluations focus on the superficial and easy-to-see aspects of a speech. They ignore the more important, but difficult to analyse, aspects of the speech.

Toastmasters evaluations overemphasise vocal variety, body language and ums and ahs. Focusing on these aspects of speechmaking leads to people performing – rather than communicating.

That’s what happened to me. When I stood up to speak I switched into performance mode. After I left Toastmasters I needed intensive coaching to let go of performing and instead connect with the audience as individual human beings.

Many evaluations are also far too kind. It takes expertise and courage to give negative personal feedback in a compassionate way. So many Toastmasters avoid it. Toastmasters evaluations are generally positive, supportive and encouraging – it’s one of the great things about Toastmasters which makes it a safe place to learn public speaking. But sometimes we need feedback on the things we don’t do so well. And if you don’t get it, you won’t improve. That’s why there are people who’ve been in Toastmasters for years and are still average speakers.

3. Find a trusted mentor to give you feedback

So you do need feedback. Speaking is not enough. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Honest and constructive feedback is crucial to improving. Within your club find someone whose speaking style and approach you admire. Ask them to be your mentor and to give you honest and analytical feedback. Here are the two things that most Toatmasters evaluations don’t cover that you want them to give you feedback on:

  1. The content of your speech – was it tailored to the needs of the audience, did it provide a take home message, what were the benefits of the speech to the audience, did the structure flow, did you back up your points with evidence?
  2. Your connection with the audience – did you come across as genuinely communicating with people in the audience, did it feel like you were having a conversation with individuals?

4. Don’t copy the Toastmasters way of using PowerPoint

Toastmasters don’t seem to have caught up with the PowerPoint revolution. Here’s an example of a slide produced by Toastmasters International:

toastmaster-slide

This is slide 2 out of 30 slides. It’s a perfect recipe for death by PowerPoint. Get your inspiration for Powerpoint slides from books like Presentation Zen (blog: PresentationZen) and Slideology (blog: Slideology). Other excellent PowerPoint design blogs are Dave Paradi’s Powerpoint Blog, Slides that Stick from Jan Schultink and PowerPoint Ninja from Brent Dykes.

For experienced Toastmasters

My most useful learning in Toastmasters came when Tony and I decided to present a session called “MindPower in Speechmaking” at the District 72 (New Zealand) Conference. We started preparing months in advance and spent every spare moment working on the session – refining scripts, developing participative exercises, and rehearsing. We delivered the session at several clubs before the Conference, videotaped ourselves and watched it back. I had never put so much work into one presentation.  I learnt a huge amount by working so intensively on one speech.

You can give yourself this learning opportunity too. But it’s not built into the Toastmasters programme – you have to take the initiative. Here are some things you can do to get the most out of Toastmasters.

1. Videotape yourself

Watching yourself present is a powerful way of getting feedback on how you come across. Although you can video yourself at home giving a speech – this gives you limited information. Take your video camera to your Toastmasters meeting and ask someone to video you. That way you can see what you’re like with a real audience.

2. Pretend it’s a different audience

One of the drawbacks of Toastmasters is that you’re generally presenting to the same audience. That means you don’t get any practice at tailoring your speech to a different audience – a core skill of presenting. Decide the type of audience you want to tailor your speech to. Then let your club know what role they’re playing and ask for feedback on the tailoring of the speech to that audience.

3. Repeat a speech several times

Most of the time in Toastmasters you plan a speech, you give it – and then move onto the next one. If you’re always giving a speech for the first time, it’s challenging to be 100% focused on simply communicating your message to the audience.  Once you’ve given the speech several times you can get out of your head and be with the audience.

Repeating a speech also enables you to fine-tune the content and monitor the impact of the changes you make. It’s an excellent learning opportunity.

4. Speak at other clubs and conferences

After a while, the Toastmasters club you belong to becomes your comfort zone. You know everyone there,  they’re all friendly and encouraging. You know they’ll be warm and supportive even when things go wrong. Step out of that comfort zone. Stretch yourself. Contact other clubs and ask to speak at one of their meetings.

5. Enter Toastmaster competitions

Competitions have two great advantages – you get to repeat a speech (point no 3) and you get to give it to different, and often larger, audiences (point no 4). So enter competitions to easily get those opportunities.

6. Offer to give an educational session

One of the drawbacks of Toastmasters is that all the speeches are relatively short. Much shorter than in the business world.

There’s a big difference between delivering a seven minute speech and a 40 minute presentation. With a seven minute speech you can rehearse five times, that’s only 35 minutes – with a 40 minute presentation that would be three hours 20 minutes. On the other hand a 40 minute presentation gives you the time to do things that can’t easily fit into a seven minute speech eg: incorporating audience participation.

So offer to give an educational session – the club members will benefit and you’ll gain from the experience of giving a longer presentation.

Don’t use the educational sessions prepared by Toastmasters. They weren’t any good when I was in Toastmasters and they haven’t improved. Prepare your own educational session based on your own experience.

7. Experiment

Toastmasters is a fantastic place to experiment and play with different speech ideas. You can’t do this in a normal business presentation. But to make this happen in Toastmasters it is up to you to take the initiative. When Tony Burns (my partner) was developing his material for paid conference speaking he used his Toastmasters club as a place for testing and finetuning his stories and his humour. Steve Pavlina, from the Personal Development for Smart People blog says:

I find Toastmasters to be a great environment for making mistakes and taking risks. I’ve done purely humorous speeches, gave a speech in film noir style, opened a speech with juggling, had the audience pretend to be superheroes, and incorporated wacky props like Barbie dolls and a ghost made from Kleenex and cotton balls. The supportive atmosphere of Toastmasters allows me to experiment well beyond the edges of what I’ve had the opportunity to do in front of other audiences. And I find that Toastmaster audiences appreciate a bit of wackiness and creativity, since they’ve already seen “the standard speech” a zillion times before.

In summary, Toastmasters is a great place to develop public speaking confidence – and by grabbing some of the ideas here you can make the most of your membership.

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