The Magic of Toastmasters

Do you want awesome powers to influence others and speak your mind?  Do you want to learn how to move and get things done when a crisis occurs? Do you want to stand on a stage, speak your mind and awe dozens if not hundreds of people? Do you want to learn the ancient secrets of rhetoric that woo followers to follow your banner and help you achieve your mission?  Do you want to learn the powerful magic of communication through the power of your voice and body language?

Join Toastmasters.

I’m serious.

Find a club near you today. Better yet, if you live near me in central Connecticut, consider joining my club.

A year ago, finding myself without much of a local community of friends, I allowed myself to be persuaded to join a club about 20 minutes from my house. They met on Tuesdays, from about 5:30 until 7:30.  I listened to speeches, I gave ten of my own. And I helped evaluate the speeches of others for grammar, timeliness, quality of topic and quality of emotion.  As a club member, I felt that I got a good deal out of the program.  In May 2014, I received the first initiated degree of Toastmasters, the Competent Communicator.

Pfft.  I suppose that there Toastmasters members are reading that and thinking, initiated? Degree? What on earth is he talking about?

But the old guys who are members of the Grange and the Freemasons, the little ladies who belong to the Eastern Star, they’re nodding along (assuming they find this blog post, anyway). They get it.

Because Toastmasters is an initiatory mystery school for training public speakers.  I haven’t had access to this much effective training in public speaking since my one elective course on preaching in a Protestant seminary — that should be a marker of how valuable the work that Toastmasters does should be, of course, because for around $80-100 a year, you can belong to an organization that will teach you how to win over crowds and make inspiring speeches.  You’ll get instant feedback on what you’re doing wrong, and what you’re doing right.

So, no, they don’t call it the First Degree of Toastmasters. They call it the Competent Communicator Award. That means that you’ve given ten speeches in front of an audience. Someone has evaluated you. Someone has given you both verbal and written critique.  And they have commented on how you’ve improved over the long haul.  In a good club, someone mentors you, too: you get someone who helps you plan out your first three or four speeches, figure out what to talk about, and how to present yourself to an audience.

At the same time, there’s a leadership track.  There’s a set of ten projects that’s designed to make you a better leader — projects on managing time, projects on learning to listen more effectively, projects on how to lead a meeting, projects on how to run projects. At the same time you’re giving speeches and getting evaluation there, you’re also getting evaluated on how well or how poorly you’re leading, and how to get better. Regardless of how well or how poorly you do in Toastmasters, too, you’re going to advance. Someone is signing off on your work, saying “yes, I evaluated your work today.” Maybe they thought it was great, maybe they thought it was terrible — but you’re getting feedback in a place and position where it doesn’t matter much. Sure, it matters to the club that you’re improving — but it’s not your job or your work or your career on the line in the same way that it might be at your workplace.  And you have a chance to make friends with neighbors and colleagues from the surrounding community who aren’t part of your regular circle, and you have a chance to impress them with your initial, and your growing skills.

Beyond Competent Communicator and Competent Leadership, there’s advanced training too. Advanced manuals in being a better salesman, being a better meeting leader, being a better interpersonal communicator, being a better parliamentarian, being a better facilitator of panels and group discussions, being interviewed or interviewing others.  Every ten projects in these areas leads to another award.  Eventually, through a process I don’t really understand, you take on a really big project, like reviving an old club or starting a new one.  The victors become Distinguished Toastmasters.

And then there’s the officership track.

Every club has some functionaries that change from week to week, and also an executive committee of seven members, responsible for seven areas: membership, public relations, education, money, administrative work, presidency, and ‘power behind the throne’ (immediate past president).  Think about that: this is an organization that recognized the importance of “leadership from the side” and built in a training mechanism to assure that people who gave up power would have a chance to learn how to manage through influential statements rather than through direct command.  This is an organization that recognized that it’s best to learn advertising and budgeting and administration separately from one another, and that money management for a club is a skill all its own. The functionary work is important too: it’s how clubs participate in evaluating their members, by tracking how frequently they use ‘filler words’ and how often they pause to go uh or ummm.  When it’s the job of one of your friends, they’re tempted to slack off in the counting: when it’s a shifting officerrship, it’s more likely to be correct — and more likely to be a useful alarum to you.

In all, I’ve found the training to be quite helpful, and I encourage my readers to find a club, and go do the same.  It’s some of the best professional development, at the cheapest rates, I’ve yet found in the world.

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