Toastmasters Explained in 7 Minutes

So, you’ve decided it’s time to improve your presentation skills?

Good.

There are numerous ways how you can do that. Soft-skill training, books, speaking in front of the mirror…

All these can work extremely well!

Yet there is one thing that may work even a little better. You’ve guessed it right – joining a Toastmaster club. Let me explain.

First things first – what is Toastmasters?

In case you’ve never heard about it before – let’s have a look what I have in mind when I say Toastmasters.

Toastmasters International is an organization (international, apparently) that builds clubs where its members practice their presentation skills. The clubs hold meetings on a regular basis (weekly or bi-weekly).

What do you do there:

You prepare a speech. During the meeting you go up on stage. You give your speech. You go back to your seat.

So far, nothing extraordinary, right?

Here’s what happens next:

When you give a speech, you have an evaluator assigned. After you finish your speech, your evaluator goes up on stage. He gives you 3-minute feedback (in front of everyone), mentioning what you did well and what you can improve the next time. Your evaluator goes back to his seat.

You have something to think about for your next presentation. Which is coming sooner than you might imagine.

Simple? Yes.

Works? Perfectly.

What’s the magic?

You get into a 3-step training loop. You give your presentation (you try). You get feedback (you fail – there’s always some aspect in which you’re not perfect). You incorporate the feedback into your next presentation (you improve). Then – you try again.

Let me explain in more detail.

Step one: Try

Think about this for a moment – what are the circumstances under which you’re usually giving a presentation? For most of us, it’s not our hobby just to go out and give speeches to groups of people. We only get to present in rather high stakes situations – when there’s something really important for us.

That’s a problem.

When we have something to lose, we limit ourselves. We play safe. We don’t want to be ridiculed. And we stay within the boundaries of something that already worked for us before.

At work, this might mean showing slides full of words and bullets – because we’ve seen so many such slides presented before. Bonus: If we forget our words in the middle of our presentation, we might just glance back at the slide – and read the second half.

But if we really want to expand our skills?

Well, we have to push out of the comfort zone a little bit and try things that are NOT safe for us. At least not yet.

What if we used more vivid gestures, to give our performance more energy? What would happen, if we just stopped talking and made a five second pause? What if we told the audience something really personal about ourselves, maybe about a time when we failed, to convey our message better?

When we’re learning anything, we don’t want to be perfect all the time. We want to allow ourselves some failures. Actually – lots of them.

Speaking about failures – in Toastmasters, you can fail all the time. I know what I’m talking about.

Step two: Fail

It’s 7th January 2013 and I’m giving a speech at Prague Business Toastmasters. The title of the speech is Must. It’s going to be about new year’s resolutions – and how people often fail to stick to them.

I was a member of Toastmasters for 6 months already. I really enjoyed it and in general I was making good progress, but there was one thing that people kept reminding me in their feedback. Bad eye contact with the audience.

“Lukas, nice story. To improve: Try to look less on the floor.”
“Lukas, good gestures. To improve: Avoid staring at the ground.”
“Lukas, you should stop working with Excel and become a professional entertainer! But – you have to look at us sometimes!”

I can tell you, that was quite annoying. Especially when I watched myself on videos – and saw that the comments were right. I was giving speeches with my eyes fixed on the floor one meter in front of me. Only once every 30 seconds or so, I looked up for a moment, probably to make sure whether the audience hasn’t walked away.

I wanted to break that habit. And I thought the best way to do it would be to create some external pressure on myself.

On that day, 7th January 2013, I announced publicly my new year’s resolution:

“My friends, from now on, I will never ever look at the ground while speaking. I’m saying it publicly. And if you ever see me looking at the ground – please tell me and make fun of me!”

Right after I finished that sentence – I continued with my speech.

With my eyes fixed on the floor.

Best of all, I was not aware of it.

Fortunately, in Toastmasters, there’s always feedback!

My evaluator began his feedback with those words: “Lukas. Good job with your speech and with your new year’s resolution. You managed not to look at the ground – for ten long seconds!”

Everybody burst into laughter. I was humiliated. I was angry. And – I knew he was right.

Only then I had felt it as a REAL must, because I wanted this to never happen again.

Step three: Improve

My next speech was on the very next day. It was called Fail smart. This time, I decided a different strategy for keeping my eyes up. When I was rehearsing the speech with notes in my hand, I held them at eye-level, instead of looking down at them.

It worked – because when I was speaking without notes, whenever I stopped to think, I was looking for my words in the place where my notes were before – and that was straight in front of me, instead of below.

When giving a presentation is not once in a very long time situation for us, we get the chance to improve on our mistakes very quickly.

Because we’re basically constantly developing speeches (once we finish one, we already have the date for the next one), we change our approach from preparing for the big event to continuous development.

This is important, because in a standard setting when we don’t prepare well in advance, often our goal with presentations is just to survive them, to make them good enough not to embarrass ourselves in front of whomever we’ll be delivering them to.

Once we break that – we will get ahead. And once we have prepared a presentation that is good enough – with some time still remaining to the presentation date, we can say to ourselves: “Let’s try something original this time – let’s make them laugh,  let’s make them dance, or both!”

Maybe it won’t work. Then again, it will be a great learning experience. But sometimes – it will.

This is when we’re back in the try part.

And this is how we get confident.

Confidence comes from demonstrated ability – when we demonstrate to ourselves, that we’re capable of successfully doing something.

When we try often, it’s a matter of statistics that sometimes we’ll get it right. We’ll survive our failures – and sometimes we’ll demonstrate success.

Each time we try something new and succeed, we increase our repertoire. We expand our horizons. And we boost our confidence.

It’s no magic

Try. Fail. Improve. Repeat. Try. Fail. Improve. Repeat. No rocket science indeed.

Do you really need to join a Toastmaster club for that?

Of course not.

The real question is: Are the chances any higher that you persist in trying, if you join?

Well, why won’t you come, have a look and find out for yourself?

 

Featured image by Rhonda, taken from Flickr, under Creative Commons licence. Brightness of image adjusted, image cropped to fit browser.

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