How to Make Toastmasters Better

I've become so good at impromptu speaking that I was accused of cheating this morning. I gave a prepared speech about comic books at the Arconic Toastmasters Club in White Lake, Michigan. It went well. Then, I volunteered to give a Table Topics speech, which is a short impromptu speech, based off a prompt on a card.

I read the card. It said something about "the most virtuous person." I moved the lectern while I was trying to think of what to say. I opened with "Who is a virtuous person?", or something like that. I was still trying to figure out what to say, but I acted like I knew what I was going to say. I went into how you might look and never find a wholly virtuous person. I transitioned to how life is suffering. Everyone has their own issues that they're suffering from, for instance I have bones pressing on my brainstem. How do we redeem this suffering? - through meaning. We find meaning in creative, experiential, and attitudinal values. Pursuing these values is virtuous. The virtuous person is any person that pursues these values. (The speech was much more engaging than this summary, I assure you.)

Everyone seemed to like both speeches. I won both categories. The general evaluator noted during the meeting that they had never seen someone do a Table Topics speech where the person didn't just read the card and answer the question, and instead gave a speech. I threw out there that one of the things that I love about Table Topics is that there are no rules.

After the meeting one person said that he disagreed with Table Topics having no rules. He said that rehearsed speeches shouldn't be used. I agreed, I hadn't thought of that possibility, but I mentioned that I've never seen someone use a prepared speech for a Table Topic. It took me a minute to realize that he was accusing me of using prepared speeches for Table Topics. (He had seen me give a speech at another club once and it was also good.) I told him that he was wrong, he didn't believe me. Then he told me that I should also stick to specifically and strictly answering the Table Topics subject. I obviously disagree and gave him some of my own suggestions. (He specifically referred to the earlier speech where I was handed an Irish saying. Instead of reading it I used a technique from improv where I did a whole build up about how my family had once been Leprechauns in Ireland. I know this because my aunt studies genealogy. How my 7 times great grandfather had learned how to grow by eating shamrocks. How we traveled to the new world. And, this entire way one sage piece of advice had been handed down - then I read the Irish saying. I hadn't looked at it before that, I just knew that it was an Irish saying. It worked great too because it really was some sage advice that I now can't remember.)

I think there are two important things to take away from this. One, I'm so good at impromptu speeches that people think they are prepared speeches. That's a long way from a few years ago when I gave my first one in Grand Haven where I stumbled along for 30 seconds and then ended by saying that I didn't know how to end, lol. Now I'm frequently told that I'm a "natural" speaker, which is always a surprise to me.

The second thing is that Toastmasters is a great organization that isn't fulfilling its potential in a few ways. I've been on a little hiatus where I've bounced around between some clubs that I have previously been a member of, some new clubs, and outside speaking engagements. During this time I've been paying attention to and taking notes on the weak points of Toastmasters. There are small things like the ah counters not pointing out the specific errors. It's important, but it's small. There are some logistical issues like scheduling roles and the meeting schedule itself. But, those are always going to be issues that everyone is always working on. However, there are three things that are in the core focus area of Toastmasters that aren't living up to what they could be.

One of these is the skill of speech evaluations. The evaluations are a speech in themselves. They also have to be useful. I think the international forms are fine for written feedback but are sadly formatted for giving a verbal evaluation and a different structure should be promoted. Namely, Jerry Conrad's method. I won't fully explain why it is a superior method here, but it is. (In short you go over the good content, content to be improved, delivery to be improved, good delivery, and I always end with what I liked best.)

Another one of these skills is Table Topics. It seems that some clubs are missing the point on Table Topics. It's not about the question or prompt, it's about delivering an impromptu speech. It's a time to explore and push boundaries, to see what you can make happen on the fringes of your skill level and your comfort level. I think delivering jokes falls into this same category. Reading a joke while standing still is not the ideal that we should be aiming for. That's a stage to grow through while you're working on becoming better.

Lastly, club presentations and scripted trainings are poorly structured. They are not engaging, and if people aren't engaged then they aren't informed. They should be structured in a way that incorporates personalization by the presenter.

This is a lot, and I realize that people join Toastmasters because they aren't comfortable and aren't good at public speaking, yet. But, I think quick enhancement in two of these areas is possible, Table Topics and speech evaluations. And just those two areas would enhance every meeting. A better meeting means that when you have visitors they will be more interested in coming back. Without a good meeting it doesn't matter how many visitors you get because they won't come back.

Just the thoughts that I had today after the meeting.

I feel like I should add a little blurb for credibility. Jeff Martin has been a member of Toastmasters for a half dozen years or so. He's been an officer in four clubs in West Michigan, including the roles of President, VP of Public Relations, Secretary, VP of Education, etc. One of these groups was a Youth Leadership Organization at Baker College. He is an Advanced Communicator Gold and was the first person to complete a full Pathway in District 62. He's given speeches in venues ranging from the Gerber Baby Food Festival, to Christian Haven Home, to a keynote webinar concerning employee training for the billion dollar company Sodexo. He's competed in and won several speaking contests at the club, area, and division levels. And, he's given keynote presentations and led groups for the Toastmasters Leadership Institute. He's received training from world-class speakers like Darren Lacroix and Bo Eason.


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