Don’t join Toastmasters? Seriously?

While skimming through my Twitter feed the other day, a Tweet caught my eye. It contained the link to a post on Entrepreneur by Jonathan Li entitled 10 Mistakes Successful Speakers Never Make Again. I was intrigued. I thought, I make mistakes; I should read it. So I did.

tm-logoMost of what I read in the post—which was published in May 2015 but is still being shared—I expected to find. What I did not expect was the recommendation not to join Toastmasters.

I did a double-take. For a moment, I thought there must be a typo, but no, I read it correctly. Here is the entirety of what Li wrote in defence of his recommendation:

Successful speakers don’t go to Toastmasters, because the organization’s forced-to-clap environment is unrealistic. Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.

Not only is this the flimsiest of rationales, it’s just plain wrong. Let’s deconstruct Li’s argument.

1.  The definition of a “successful” speaker is subjective. For some, being a successful speaker could be getting paid to speak or giving a TED Talk. For others, success might be something as simple as being able to give a toast at a wedding without falling apart. The vast majority of Toastmasters have no intention of becoming professional speakers; they just want to become more comfortable in front of an audience. Speaking at Toastmasters has helped many people achieve this level of “success”.

2.  Li states that successful speakers “[don’t feel] terrified before speaking in front of groups”. One of the benefits of Toastmasters is that it helps people be more at ease when speaking in front of others. Yes, a Toastmasters audience is supportive, but people have to start somewhere. Telling people that they should “choose to turn their nervousness into excitement” and “focus on transforming lives and making a big impact” is all well and good, but you need to do that in front of a real audience. A Toastmasters meeting is one of the places where you can get this opportunity.

3.  Toastmasters has a “forced-to-clap” environment that is unrealistic. Yes, clapping is a big part of Toastmasters and even I find it a bit much at times. But for some, the applause is important (see Point 1 above) and, in any event, it is certainly not a reason not to join.

4.  “Successful speakers practice public speaking in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback.” Well, at Toastmasters, people speak in front of live audiences that provide constructive feedback. In fact, in my experience, Toastmasters provide more constructive feedback than you get in many corporate settings. Sure, the feedback is sometimes heavier on the positive side than on suggestions for improvement, but depending on the experience of the speaker, that is not a bad thing. Experienced speakers should be given more constructive criticism than novice speakers. You want to encourage people, not discourage them.

5.  “The realistic environment helps them grow and succeed faster.” Fine, but what is a “realistic” environment? Nowhere in his post does Li offer an example of a “realistic” environment where people should speak. Presumably, he means anywhere but Toastmasters. However, every speaking situation is different; every speaking situation offers different opportunities for growth. I am a firm believer that if people want to hone their speaking skills, they should definitely speak in front of non-Toastmaster audiences. No issue there. But why does that preclude them from speaking at Toastmasters as well? It should not be an either / or proposition.

6.  Li concludes his post by stating, correctly, that no matter how we may be as speakers, we need to keep improving. He then encourages readers to “learn from other successful speakers, attend seminars, and watch the best TED talks.” While I agree with his suggestions, there is a glaring omission. What about … practice speaking in front of people? That is the best way to become a better speaker. You could watch every TED Talk ever given, but until you go on stage yourself, you don’t really know what it’s like. Toastmasters is a place where you can get on stage.

This week I had phone call with my good friend and fellow speaker, Conor Neill. Conor is part of a close network of speaker-friends that I have here in Europe. We collaborate on projects, share ideas and refer work to each other. We look out for one another and constantly try to improve each other’s game.

During our discussion, Conor asked how I try out new material before using it with clients. One of the ways is Toastmasters, which I use as a laboratory where I can experiment. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t, but it is always a valuable learning experience. I tell people to think of, and use, Toastmasters as a place where they can stretch themselves; a place where they can try things that they wouldn’t risk doing in a “realistic” environment. Few places offer this kind of oratorical sandbox. I fail to see how taking advantage of such an opportunity is anathema to successful public speaking.

I have been a member of Toastmasters since mid-2007. I have given dozens of speeches there, spoken at Toastmasters conferences across Europe and won several speech contests at the highest level. Two years ago, I left a secure position as a lawyer at the World Health Organization to pursue a full-time career in public speaking.

I have worked with some of the largest, best known companies and organizations in the world. I have given a TEDx Talk to 700 people. In the past year, I have been paid to speak at events in Canada, the United States, Argentina, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain and Finland, and I already have bookings late into 2017.

Am I a successful speaker? I suppose it depends on your definition of success. However, to the extent that I have had any success, Toastmasters has made a positive contribution. It is not perfect and it should not be the only place you speak. But it is a great organization that can offer you a lot of benefits.

Don’t join Toastmasters? That’s just short-sighted, bad advice.

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Manner of Speaking recognized by Feedspot

Manner of Speaking has been chosen by Feedspot, a popular RSS Reader, as one of the Top 50 Public Speaking Blogs on the Internet. And, among the Top 50, Manner of Speaking was rated 7th. Here’s what Feedspot had to say:

Trying to improve your public speaking and presentation skills to be a better public speaker? Or want to eliminate public speaking fear so you can feel comfortable speaking in a large meeting? Reading public speaking blogs can help you to develop, practice and deliver a great presentation and enhance your speech while lessening the fear of public speaking.

Therefore, we’ve compiled a list of the Best Public Speaking blogs out there on the web. Get information on different areas of public speaking expertise which include anxiety, body language, audience analysis, conflict resolution, presenting effectively, gendered communication styles and anything and everything to do with the art of public speaking.

feedspotFeedspot ranked the blogs based on following criteria:

  • Google reputation and Google search ranking
  • Influence and popularity on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites
  • Quality and consistency of posts
  • Feedspot’s editorial team and expert review

I am grateful to Feedspot for the recognition. Congratulations to everyone who made it onto the list. I know several of the sites that were ranked, but others are new to me. I will have to check them out. You should too.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 244) – Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943) Serbian-American Physicist, Engineer and Futurist

Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943) Serbian-American Physicist, Engineer and Futurist

The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. No big laboratory is needed in which to think. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

— Nikola Tesla

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Zen and the Art of Public Speaking

Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974. The book has sold more than 5 million copies and is widely considered a modern philosophical classic. In Zen, Pirsig discusses the metaphysics of quality. He explores the subject over the course of a 17-day motorcycle journey acros the western United States with his son.

zen-and-the-artBefore writing the book, Pirsig taught creative and technical writing at a small college in Montana. While there, he became obsessed with the question of what defines quality. His investigations eventually drove him insane and he underwent electroshock treatments that changed his personality. The book delves into the issue, but it is also a reconciliation between the person whom Pirsig is now and the person he used to be.

I first picked up Zen years ago when I was still a teenager and found it a very tough read. I promised myself that I would read it when I was older and so, a few decades later, I have picked it up again and have not been disappointed.

While reading, I came across an extended passage in which Pirsig bemoans the shoddy workmanship that some mechanics did on his motorcycle and the shoddy workmanship that too many people do in general. (The mechanics did such poor work that Pirsig made them stop and he did the job himself.)

After fixing the motorcycle, Pirsig reflected on why the mechanics had done such poor work. An extended excerpt from the book follows:

The question why comes back again and again … Why did they butcher it so? These were not people running away from technology … These were the technologists themselves. They sat down to do a job and they performed it like chimpanzees. Nothing personal in it. There was no obvious reason for it. And I tried to think back into that shop, that nightmare place, to try to remember anything that could have been the cause.

The radio was a clue. You can’t really think hard about what you’re doing and listen to the radio at the same time. Maybe they didn’t see their job as having anything to do with hard thought, just wrench twiddling. If you can twiddle wrenches while listening to the radio that’s more enjoyable.

Their speed was another clue. They were really slopping things around in a hurry and not looking where they slopped them. More money that way—if you don’t stop to think that it usually takes longer or comes out worse.

But the biggest clue seemed to be their expressions. They were hard to explain. Good-natured, friendly, easygoing—and uninvolved. They were like spectators. You had the feeling they had just wandered in there themselves and somebody had handed them a wrench. There was no identification with the job. No saying, “I am a mechanic.” At 5 P.M. or whenever their eight hours were in, you knew they would cut it off and not have another thought about their work. They were already trying not to have any thoughts about their work on the job. … Or rather, they had something to do with it, but their own selves were outside of it, detached, removed. They were involved in it but not in such a way as to care.

Not only did these mechanics not find that sheared pin, but it was clearly a mechanic who had sheared it in the first place, by assembling the side cover plate improperly. I remembered the previous owner had said a mechanic had told him the plate was hard to get on. That was why. The shop manual had warned about this, but like the others he was probably in too much of a hurry or he didn’t care.

While at work I was thinking about this same lack of care in the digital computer manuals I was editing. Writing and editing technical manuals is what I do for a living the other eleven months of the year and I knew they were full of errors, ambiguities, omissions and information so completely screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them. But what struck me for the first time was the agreement of these manuals with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the idea that “Here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it, other than to turn certain switches, maintain voltage levels, check for error conditions” and so on. That’s it. The mechanics in their attitude toward the machine were really taking no different attitude from the manual’s toward the machine, or from the attitude I had when I brought it in there. We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

On this trip I think we should notice it, explore it a little, to see if in that strange separation of what man is from what man does we may have some clues as to what the hell has gone wrong in this twentieth century. I don’t want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things. I just want to get at it slowly, but carefully and thoroughly, with the same attitude I remember was present just before I found that sheared pin. It was that attitude that found it, nothing else. [Emphasis added.]

Based on my experience, many people prepare their presentations with the same attitude as the mechanics and technical writers in the excerpt above. They do the work, but not in a meaningful way. And thus, they do a disservice to themselves and, more importantly, their audiences.

You have to care about your audience and, by extension, your presentation. When you care about your presentation you will prepare it carefully and thoughtfully, with the audience in mind. If you don’t care, you are more likely to do a poor job and, as a result, waste people’s time.

The next time you have a presentation, show some care for your audience as you prepare. Your presentation will hum along like a well-tuned motorcycle.

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Quotes for Public Speakers (No. 243) – Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta

 Ibn Battuta (on right) (1304 – 1369) Moroccan Traveler and Scholar

“Traveling—it leaves you speechless then turns you into a storyteller.”

— Ibn Battuta (أبو عبد الله محمد بن عبد الله اللواتي الطنجي بن بطوطة)

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