Friday, January 1, 2010

Don't Let Toastmasters Hurt You in 2010

I hear, from time to time, that Toastmasters carries with it a negative connotation in the professional world of speaking. I've listened to Alan Weiss state that the World Championship of Public Speaking was the World Championship of Amateurism - on a teleseminar with a few of the very Champions he was describing. Tom Antion derides Toastmasters as a bunch of clueless people patting each other on the back while getting upset over ahs and ums.

Is it true? Will Toastmasters ultimately damage your future as a speaker? Will those you want to call peers forever look down their noses at you, even if you win the biggest possible trophy?


But only if you allow it to happen. There are many other speakers who found themselves in Toastmasters and are now seen as standalone professionals as speakers. Sheryl Roush, Johnny Campbell, and Kathleen Gage were all Toastmasters at one time, or still are. As well known in TM circles as they are, Darren LaCroix, Ed Tate, Edward Hearn and Craig Valentine are just a few great examples of World Champions enjoying speaking success outside of the bounds of TM. Even Patricia Fripp went through Toastmasters, and I've heard she competed at a Region Conference back in the day.

From these and other Toastmaster successes, I've gathered the following strategies to ensure Toastmasters doesn't hurt your hoped-for professional career. Some lessons I wish I'd learned more than a few years ago.

1. Don't just collect awards and trophies - collect videos & audios of your work, and testimonials from your audiences, even if you've known them for years.

2. Get involved in leadership and actually DO something. Organizing volunteer activities such as contests, trainings and conferences IS professional experience. Getting volunteers to accomplish anything is a valuable commodity in today's society.

3. Use the speech manuals to support your goals. Believe it or not, you DON'T have to switch your speech from project to project in the basic manual. Crusty old DTM's may debate this, but there are no rules about new content for manuals. Professionals use the same general material for years - use Toastmasters guidelines as a way to improve on your delivery, focusing each project on material you will really use, instead of coming up with one throwaway speech after another.

4. Train your club to give you tougher evaluations, even giving them special requests of what to focus on for individual speeches. When competing, I often designed my own evaluation form to give me the information I felt most important.

5. Quit delivering Toastmaster speeches, and just deliver speeches. 5-7 minutes is fine, and you can even get manual credit. Consider that if you film 10 speeches in a year of you delivering your material as if you were in the real world, you have usable material for products and marketing. Watch your verbiage and your environment. Nothing says TM like "Fellow Toastmasters and Guests" and a big Yellow Banner in the background. Even speaking only once a month, you could easily have an hour or more of usable film and/or audio.

6. Compete. Regardless of trophies, it allows you to refine your skills as a speaker, writer, editor, as well as give you exposure to wider groups of Toastmasters, while giving them exposure to YOU.

7. Volunteer to speak at trainings, conferences, etc - you'll be able to give longer presentations to bigger groups. A win-win.

8. Speak at other clubs - expose yourself to new evaluators and unfamiliar audiences, timeslots, and settings.

9. Look into the Accredited Speaker program (Both the aforementioned Sheryl Roush and Johnny Campbell have been awarded this title). Its the only award TM gives with measurable goals based on both activity and quality. In some circles, it carries more weight than a World Championship trophy.

10. Win the World Championship. OK - only winner per year - not the most reliable strategy, but its certainly an option. It won't send a Brinks Truck to your door, as 2003 Champ Jim Key likes to say, but it'll certainly help you get your foot into a few doors.

11. Understand that TM isn't the end-all be-all. Join NSA. Go to Dale Carnegie training, or the Bill Gove Workshop. Going in, remember, just because you're a DTM, PDG, WCPS, and AS with a closet full of ribbons, certificates and trophies, chances are nobody will care. Unless they, like you, are a Toastmaster.

12. Find a mentor or hire a coach - even if they're a Toastmaster. Find someone who has done what you want to do, or whose speaking you respect. Focused time with a coach will push you farther in several areas of speaking in a fraction of the time it takes waiting to learn in on a weekly basis.

13. Speak outside of Toastmasters as often as possible. Rotary, Lions, Non-profit Organizations and Chambers all use speakers regularly - there are plenty of opportunities if you choose to look.

To a point, the detractors of Toastmasters are correct. Toastmasters does not create great professional speakers. It's not a mill designed to churn out great speakers - its an organization dedicated to helping people overcome their fear, build competence as speakers, and try their hand in leadership roles. Only those who decide to use the program specifically to drive them to their final destination will find themselves successes in the real world.

In 2010, put as much into Toastmasters as you want to get out of it. Align its opportunities with your goals. Find rewards in helping others while advancing your own agenda.

Finally, don't get lost in the praise and supportive sub-culture of the organization. TM isn't designed to harden you to the outside world, but simply help you get your wobbly legs underneath you so you can take your first few steps, and provide open spaces for you to take your first run.

I love Toastmasters, the organization, the program, the people. If you do as well, then honor them in this one simple fashion: be the success that proves the worth of Toastmasters, instead of using Toastmasters to prove your success!


  1. This was an excellent article on the benefits and possible pitfalls of Toastmasters. I've only been involved in Toastmasters for 1.5 years, but can see hints of what you're talking about. I think you can encounter the pitfalls you discussed with any organization depending on who is associated with it.

    Getting involved in the leadership aspect of Toastmasters is an important component that I think many overlook at first. I am often asked why members should bring their manuals to every meeting. The reason is so they can get credit for taking on meeting and leadership roles. Learning leadership is as important as learning how to speak in public.

    Thank you for the wonderful article!

  2. I agree Cathy! - and after many years of leading from behind the guise of the speaking track, this is my first year to take an officer role, as a Division Governor. It's been fun!

  3. Rich - a great article! I think this should be in the Toastmasters magazine!

  4. Toastmasters is a great organization and it can help you become a wonderful speaker... but the organization is really not designed to take you from "free" to "fee" as Craig Valentine would say.

    The problem is, organizations like the NSA have a high bar for membership (25 paid speeches in one year)so many people have found themselves in a gap.

    This is where ProSpeak comes in. ProSpeak is an apprenticeship program put on by the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of NSA, designed to guide "amateur" speakers into a speaking business of their own.

    With a one time cost around a thousand dollars, this is an affordable doorway into the realm of professional speaking.

    With 80% of the course designed around building a business, and 20% on speaking skills, it is a great compliment to a person's Toastmaster experience.

    Other NSA chapters around the country may offer similar programs and many speaking coaches offer a similar style course.

    The thing that I have found in speaking, blogging, and business in general is to develop a unique niche with a "product" that people are will to pay for.

    A great place to practice all of this is Toastmasters!

  5. Rich, this is very well put. I'm sorry to say this, but there is a good deal of truth in Tom Antion's comments, as many Toastmasters are insular and develop inflated senses of their places in the speaking world. There is little relationship between most Toastmasters activities and what it really takes to succeeed in front of a live audience. (Some of the worst spekaers I have ever heard are Distinguished Toastmasters.) I have also had bad experiences with clubs that accept substandard speeches, speeches that don't meet the expressed criteria, and have even falsified manuals so that they and districts can achieve their "distinguished" status.
    And yet there is no denying that I have benefitted from my years in Toastmasters and continue to do so. My Siemens Toastsmasters club, which is a corporate club in Pa., boasts some of the finest speakers I have met anywhere, due at least partially to the fact that it is a corporate club. I have often improved there and in other clubs as a result of accurate evaluations. And my book, "The Six P's of Change," began as a 30-minute speech. Certainly I am grateful for that opportunity.
    In the end, I have come to regard Toastmasters as a very valuable laboratory, a place to try new speeches, concepts and techniques in a supportive environment. After all, the mantra of former TM world champ Darren LaCroix is "Stage time, stage time, stage time." A good Toastmaster club can be a great place to get that time. Even Jerry Seinfeld and Rodney Dangerfield have been known to show up at a comedy club unannounced to try out new material. Good for then, fun for their surprised audiences.
    As you say, Rich, just remember that Toastmasters is not the be-all and end-all. Combine this practice with NSA meetings or free speeches at the local Rotary Clubs, and you will gain a range of experience that is bound to improve you as a speaker.

  6. Excellent post, Rich!

    The WCPS has never claimed to be professional competition. How many of the contestants actually make a living out of speaking? As for Antion's remarks, there are really some clubs that have prostituted themselves to recognition at the expense of real progress of their members.

    I've gone beyond the Toastmasters manuals and have gone 3rd party instead like Rich's, Darren's, Garr's, and Nancy's books. I do a run of the Competent Communication manual every year though, something I learned from DNAR Director Keith Ostergard.

    Toastmasters is basically just a presentation workout (and entertainment) facility for me. It's like a fitness club for the mind, for better mind-mouth coordination. But the comparison ends there as I can stay physically fit without having to join any fitness clubs.

    I do present in real-world sales situations and hardly anything is done within 7 minutes and I don't have to since I am usually the only presenter. TED and TEDx Conferences have an 18-minute limit. So time limits are simply to keep meetings under control. So where does one go to practice lengthy presentations? Find clubs with few speakers and deliver it there.

    Contests themselves are practice facilities and a challenge. It gets one beyond comfort of the conference room or dinner table. An alternative to contests is to present at TEDx conferences.

  7. I like the article, love the analogy of Toastmasters as a place to keep fit ('mind-mouth' coordination), agree that the quality standards vary from club to club, and look forward to reading more on your blog.

    Oh yeah, I too think this would be an excellent article to submit for inclusion in the TOASTMASTER magazine. Good luck in 2010 (and beyond). John Lesko

  8. Outstanding article Rich. You outlined both the pros and cons of Toastmasters. I became a Toastmaster in the early 90's and found it to be very beneficial to my long term goals. I also found it to be very true what you said about those who simply gather awards and go for the applause.

    As with anything, we have to be willing to spread our wings, take risks, apply our knowledge in a variety of areas and truly live the message of what TM is all about.

    I have to add that I was also a National Speakers Association member for many years which included speaker of the year (twice) and past president of the Utah Chapter.

    I found some of the very same truths apply to NSA as well. Pros and cons.

    I have not been a member of either for over 8 years. Not to say I won't ever join again, but at this point in my career, I find all is well in my world.

    I would add that one of the greatest benefits of TM is surrounding yourself with others who are on the path of self improvement in many areas; presenting, leadership, team members, etc.

    Great job Rich.

    Kathleen Gage
    The Street Smarts Marketer

  9. Hey Rich,

    Great article - lots of good points. As both a Toastmaster (well, former, I guess, as it's been a year or two since my last meeting) and very active NSA member, I think you hit the nail on the head.

    Actually, I think your article can be glabalized wlell beyond TM or NSA. The key to getting the most value out of any organization is to take responsibility for your own growth, which is basically what many of your points say. I have seen people in both TM and NSA just show up and expect to have success just magically "happen" to them. The people who excel are the ones who understand the steps it takes to get real value out of any group.

    Nice job!

    Avish Parashar

  10. Rich,

    Great topic. I like to say "Don't look for no!" Too many folks see some of the shortfalls you mention and use them as a full roadblock. I like how you discuss the way to move past limitations and use your TM experience to reach your goals.

    The only people who cannot use Toastmasters to become better speakers, better leaders or even professional speakers are the people who choose not to.


  11. Ditto the above comments, Rich. I'm a slow learner, but I've come to believe that the Toastmasters program is to be used in whatever way benefits you the most. Strict adherence to what more veteran Toastmasters say is the "right" way leads to death by homogenization. The spouse of a Toastmaster once commented, "All Toastmasters speeches sound alike." That was the most insulting -- and accurate -- description of our program imaginable.



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