I always heard great things about Toastmasters International and often recommended it to anybody who wanted to become a better public speaker. And I wasn’t even a member. About a year ago, I decided to change that and joined a club near my home. This is my review of Toastmasters after the first year as a member.
What Is Toastmasters?
Toastmasters International is a US-based educational organization to promote public speaking and leadership skills. The program started in 1924 when Ralph C. Smedley created a set of classes to help members at his local YMCA improve their communication skills.
In close to 100 years, Toastmasters has touched the lives of more than four million people. Today, the club includes over 350,000 active members worldwide.
Members typically meet every week or every other week at their local club. Some members see so much value, they belong to more than one club. I even met one member who attends a Toastmasters meeting almost every day of the year. Now that’s what I call commitment to personal development and growth.
Over 16,000 Toastmasters clubs worldwide are grouped into areas of up to eight clubs. These local areas combine into larger divisions and districts all over the world. Club members volunteer for the different officer roles needed to manage various supporting activities and keep the organization running smoothly at every level.
Toastmasters Meeting Structure
Club meetings follow a proven structure that encourages each member to participate actively. Each meeting consists of three parts to help members gain confidence when speaking in front of others:
The Table Topics session helps members to think on their feet by delivering an impromptu mini-speech. A Topic Master assigns a different topic to some members who are then tasked with giving a two-minute off-the-cuff speech.
In the Prepared Speech session, a few members deliver a prepared speech of five to seven minutes duration. More advanced speeches may take longer. These presentations help members to solidify their understanding of the material learned in their specific Learning Path.
Learning new skills without feedback is like moving in dense fog: you can’t clearly see if you are on the right path. During the Evaluation Session, a Personal Evaluator for each Prepared Speech helps the presenter learn clearly what they are already doing well and what they can improve.
This structure is very effective because it provides many opportunities for club members to take an active role during a meeting. They can participate as Table Topics respondent, give a Prepared Speech, or facilitate any of the sessions. At my club, we also have a Joke Telling session which is lots of fun and puts members into a relaxed learning state.
My Review of Toastmasters
After exchanging a few messages with the president of LION Toastmasters in Sriracha, Thailand, I attended my first meeting as a guest on February 8th, 2018. LION is the corporate sponsor of this Toastmasters club and the meeting room used is spacious and very well equipped.
I arrived shortly before 6 pm and was greeted with a warm welcome. And a snack. A nice spread of local finger food freshly procured from a nearby market. Thais sure know how to enjoy good food!
The meeting started promptly at 6:15 pm with an opening address by the meeting chair of the day, who explained the philosophy of Toastmasters: learning by yourself, learning by doing, and helping each other.
My First Table Topics Participation
During the Table Topics session, the Topics Master encouraged me to participate, even though I was just a guest. I don’t remember the topic given, but I do remember having fun while giving a two-minute impromptu speech to my new friends.
After a short break, the Prepared Speech session started. It included three speakers who presented various topics. It was a pleasure listening to each speaker, as they were all at different levels. One was clearly no stranger to talking in front of a group, while others were just starting out. This is what convinced me that a Toastmasters meeting is not just a place to learn public speaking; it is a place for people at every level of proficiency to hone their communication skills.
I made up my mind to join even before the Evaluation Session started. If I still had doubts though, this session would have convinced me. Part of the Toastmasters experience is learning how to deliver feedback so it helps others to improve their skills without hurting their feelings. During this Evaluation Session, I witnessed extremely effective feedback that left the recipient uplifted and with a clear idea about aspects they can still improve.
Pathways – A New Way of Learning for Toastmasters
No review of Toastmasters in 2019 would be complete without mentioning Pathways. At the moment I became a member, I also gained access to this powerful online learning platform. My first task was to select a Learning Path in line with my interests and goals. There are ten paths for members to choose from, including Dynamic Leadership, Innovative Planning, and Presentation Mastery. Each path offers 5 levels of increasing difficulty to help members reach competency in their chosen path. I selected Presentation Mastery.
The lessons in each module are presented in bite-sized chunks so they are easy to absorb. Pathways is an online tool that includes text and videos to explain concepts and help members prepare for their next presentation.
Since I joined, I have given numerous Prepared Speeches, starting with an ice-breaker to introduce myself to my fellow members. Subsequent speeches included topics ranging from the Wright Brothers to the presentation magic of Steve Jobs. They included talks about my own presentation style, a demonstration of effective body language, a mini-training on slide design, and many more.
My last Prepared Speech was about managing a difficult audience. I think my fellow members had even more fun during this talk than I did, as they got to play the roles of difficult audience members to test how I deal with all kinds of interruptions during my talk.
Toastmaster’s Legacy Program
Because I joined Toastmasters after the rollout of Pathways, I am not familiar with the classic program. Reading some posts on the Pathways Discussion Forum on Facebook, however, I realize that some long-time members struggle a bit with this computer-based approach. I think this is natural during every paradigm shift, especially when the user experience doesn’t appear to be all that intuitive.
The user interface of Pathways indeed seems unnecessarily complex and is not very mobile-friendly but I find the quality of the content makes up for it. Besides, I’m convinced that the user experience of Pathways will improve over time. Members who are not yet ready to embrace Pathways can still use their legacy manuals until 2020 before that program is discontinued.
Competing to Measure Your Growth
Toastmasters clubs do not operate in a vacuum, they are organized in areas, districts, and divisions. And there are methods in place to help members from different clubs connect with each other. Each district holds an annual conference, for example.
These annual conferences are more than just social gatherings, they are educational events with a competitive aspect. Part of these conferences are speech contests, in which members compete for best Speaker, best Table Topics respondent, or best Evaluator.
The contestants have to earn their spot by first winning contests at club, area, and division level. The winners of the district contests are then invited to compete at on a global level on Toastmasters International’s annual conference to crown the World Champion of Public Speaking.
Here is the winning speech from the 2018 champion, Ramona J. Smith:
I enjoyed watching the finals of the World Championship of Public Speaking even before I became an active member. While I do not have the aspiration to compete in speech contests, I highly respect anyone who does. The commitment it takes to compete is tremendous.
Are There Any Negatives About Toastmasters?
This wouldn’t be a balanced review of Toastmasters if I only mentioned the things I enjoy. So what are some of the negatives I perceive?
No Social Aspect in Pathways
People today love to engage in discussions online. Pathways is online. Wouldn’t it be great if members could comment on specific modules, ask questions, and engage in discussions with other members? At this time, there is, however, no social integration in Pathways at all.
As a result, each club and district seems to setup their own method for members to communicate with each other online. In our district, the preferred communication tool is LINE, which I find a poor choice for team communication and collaboration. Various Facebook groups for individual clubs and districts in addition to the Official Toastmasters Facebook Page exist, but not in a single place.
Progress Can Be Slow
Perhaps you landed a new job that requires you to speak to groups, and you need to learn the basics of effective presentations fast. In that case, Toastmasters might be too slow paced for you. I would rather recommend a presentation skills workshop as you will learn and practice a wide range of effective techniques in just a few days.
You will still find a lot of value at Toastmasters though, like many other highly accomplished communicators find value in it. Not to learn the basics quickly, but rather to practice and fine-tune your skills. Toastmasters, after all, is an ideal lab with a very supportive audience.
Too Much Emphasis on Delivery; Not Enough on Content
There is a tremendous focus on how a speech is delivered. In each meeting, there is a designated “Ah” counter who keeps track of verbal ticks. Feedback during the Evaluation Session, while valuable, is focused on body language, voice tone, and movement on stage while the structure and sequencing of content often takes a back seat…or isn’t discussed at all.
There are many ways to be effective as a speaker. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk is currently the most viewed with 55 million views. I call that a highly effective speech. Yet he sprinkles a hefty amount of “ahs” and “uhms” throughout his talk. He doesn’t use any theatrics to get his point across. His speech is devoid of any props. Yet his message is so powerful, well sequenced, and sprinkled with humor, he keeps his audience on the edge of their seats throughout his talk.
I doubt Sir Robinson would win any prizes at a Toastmasters contest where the focus seems purely on delivery and not content.
Explore Toastmasters for Yourself
I joined a local Toastmasters club one year ago with the expectation of meeting like-minded people in a friendly and supportive environment. And that’s exactly what I found.
I found interesting people with a passion for self development. We all know that practice makes permanent and consider our Toastmasters club an ideal venue to practice our communication skills regularly and to get valuable feedback. I continue to recommend joining a club to anybody who wants to become a more effective public speaker…now even more enthusiastically than before I had my first-hand experience.
Perhaps this review of Toastmasters will help you decide if joining a club is right for you. If you want to improve your communication skills, I am convinced it is. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself if Toastmasters would be beneficial to you and attend a meeting as a guest. There is no pressure to join. Head over to the Toastmasters International website to find a club near you. And if you are already a member, I would be delighted to read your thoughts about Toastmasters in the comments below.