Thursday, September 11, 2008


In writing my applications for school, I have had the chance to remember something I used to be fairly involved in: Toastmasters. I often find myself using the techniques I learned to evaluate and improve myself, and I suggest it to anyone who has a fear of public speaking. It's even great for people who just want to get better. What is Toastmasters, though?

Toastmasters International, as the name indicates, is a worldwide organization that was created to help people communicate more effectively. The primary focus is to help with public speaking, but it can help improve general skills along the way. Below is a post I wrote on Natasha's blog about a typical club meeting:

A typical Toastmasters club meets once a week. Each week's meeting should include a portion where someone has the job of asking anyone (though those assigned to give speeches might be left out) questions that they then get to respond to in a minute and a half. The goal there is to help people 1) think well on their feet and 2) answer questions in succinct sound-bytes. It also warms up the crowd. I forget what that portion of the meeting is called, but it's often the most fun simply because anyone can be involved and the questions and answers can be funny or interesting.
The next part of the meeting two or three speakers will give speeches that were assigned or that they agreed to give, but the subject matter is up to them. They just have to meet the criteria of the speech they are giving - there are ten in the beginner's manual. The first is basically just get on your feet and tell about yourself. Each lesson after that tries to help people develop more skills as a speaker by incorporating more into what is required. One speech requires people to do something to teach people, another requires visual aids, and so on. The tenth speech incorporates a lot of requirements, and when that is completed, a person is certified as a Competent Toastmaster. After that, there are manuals to choose from that a person can choose to develop particular skills - such as speaking with the use of a projector or something like that. It's a great program. Early speeches are generally 5-7 minutes, later ones might run 12-15. One of the best things I learned from Toastmasters is how to run an efficient meeting and how to plan an agenda.
And here's the neat part. Every speaker has someone assigned to critique the speech, and everyone else fills out a written critique (generally just a few comments). The assigned person to give the critique stands up and tells everyone what went well, what could be improved, and the general feeling of how well or poorly the speech went. Early speakers are to be treated with kid gloves unless they ask, while later speakers should be ready for more specific things they can improve. By getting feedback, a person might realize he waves his hands in a meaningless way, or that he stands too still. He might find out he should slow down or speed up. Read less, emote more. Those sorts of things can come out in a critique, and I have watched the most terrified speakers become quite accomplished thanks to this program. I was a seasoned speaker by the time I started the first club, but I still learned a lot. The critiques each last about two minutes.
Three more assignments in the meeting: an "ah/umm" counter, meeting coordinator, and meeting evaluator. The umm counter might use a clicker (like some clerks use to count attendance in Sacrament) and the noise of that clicker can often help a speaker stop right away. Every speaker (even the ones who answer questions off the cuff) should be counted so he can learn to quit using fill words like that. The meeting coordinator has the job of introducing all the different speakers and evaluators, as well as the person in charge of the questions, much like the counselor in charge of conducting sacrament or any other meeting might. The meeting evaluator has the job of evaluating the entire meeting - how well was the agenda managed, a comment or two on speakers or on how well the Q&A session went, and a comment on the evaluators. The idea is to create an environment where everyone can learn and everyone can teach in a great big feedback loop.

So here's what a typical agenda would look like:
I. Open the meeting (just a few words of welcome, 2-3 minutes)
II. Question session (12-15 minutes, depending on the size of club, generally 10 questions is good)
III. First speaker 5-7 minutes
IV. Second Speaker 5-7 minutesV. Evaluator I 2 minutes
VI. Evaluator II 2 minutes
VII. Ah counter presents numbers 2 minutes
VIII. Meeting evaluator 2-5 minutes

Total time - 35-45 minutes, roughly. Some time to socialize at the end is good, just so the meeting isn't completely formal, and so members can get to know each other. Refreshments can be brought in, and sometimes they are available at the beginning, but they tend to be a distraction so they are often held to the end. Some clubs have none (my first didn't because the library didn't allow them, my second and third often had pizza to get students to come who might claim they couldn't manage to come unless there was food).

I'm amazed how much I remember, considering I haven't had a meeting in five and a half years (or close to that long). The manuals are all excellent teaching tools and they come with the dues paid to Toastmasters International, which are quite reasonable. Local clubs generally have minimal dues unless they choose to have them for advertising the club or sharing the cost of food. My first club had no local dues while my second had some to help pay for the cost of advertising to the campus in future years. I would recommend having some local dues because my third club is still alive, while my first club is long gone (they disbanded when I went back to school). A club needs new members to stay fresh. Holding a quarterly open house of sorts is a great way to do that, I imagine, but I've never been in a club long-term to have to manage those things.

Right now I'm sure you're thinking "I wish I hadn't asked." Sorry for the long-winded response. I love Toastmasters.

-- Robert
P.S.: I generally try to avoid "second person" writing in my posts, but I didn't have the time to re-write the comment without it. Also, thanks to co-author Todd, I was reminded that the Q&A session is called "Table Topics." Generally there's a theme to those, which I also forgot to mention.

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