Content, Feedback and No Magic: 3 Unexpected Takeaways from Toastmasters

Why do people in increasing numbers join this mysterious society called Toastmasters?

Maybe they utterly failed the last time they had to give a presentation – maybe they just fear they will fail the next time.

They are nervous when they have to stand in front of a group and speak. They feel that their voice is trembling and that their gestures are clumsy. They are not able to maintain eye contact with the audience for more than a few seconds. And they are forgetting what they wanted to say.

Well, Toastmasters is a public speaking club, so all those are valid reasons for joining (you can find a bit more on this topic here).

However, yesterday I received a comment from one of my colleagues at work asking what did Toastmasters give me besides public speaking skills.

I thought about it for a little moment – and I realized that there actually were quite a few unexpected takeaways. I have picked three of my own and – in order to provide some variety of opinion – I made a little research among my Toastmaster friends to see what their takeaways were.

For myself, I would point out the following three:

1. Develop content. Anytime.

When I had my first Toastmaster speech scheduled, my goal was very simple: To survive. I just needed to put together enough words (and memorize them afterwards) to survive on the stage for 6 minutes and avoid making a complete fool of myself.

Once I learned that I can survive, another question appeared: How to create a speech that other people would actually enjoy watching?

For some time, I was writing a 6-minute speech (approximately 600 words) every two weeks. That was quite a lot of writing, so I had to come up with a few strategies:

  • I started reading books – I realized that the speakers who really have something to say, read a lot (all the wisdom was not coming from their own heads, after all!)
  • I started writing ideas down on post-its (self-brainstorm, stick them on a window, cluster them and re-shuffle them in the right order)
  • I speeded up my writing by starting with the rough first draft (write quickly, don’t censor) and only afterwards moving to the edit stage (if you’d like a few more hints how to do it – try 750 Words)

This has become really useful for me way beyond preparing Toastmaster presentations. Whenever I need to produce content – I draw on my speechwriting experience.

2. Give effective feedback

How good are you at giving feedback? And how would you know how whether your feedback was effective?

In Toastmasters, the objective is quite clear – when you are giving feedback on a speech to someone who came to improve their speaking, you want to:

  1. Make sure they will come again (if they don’t, they’ll simply just stop improving, obviously)
  2. Tell them specifically what they can do better next time to make their speech more effective

When it’s clear what the objective of your feedback is, well, you’re half way there. The second half is – you need to get feedback on how effective your feedback was.

Over the two and half years I spent in Toastmasters, I had hundreds of opportunities to hear what didn’t work when I was giving feedback to others:

  • “Lukas, it’s not enough to say the speaker had strong gestures – you should have repeated how he waved his hands at the audience”
  • Or: “Lukas, it’s not enough to say the speaker should not be nervous – you should have said that her hands were shaking and that she can hide it next time if she won’t be holding that sheet of paper in her hands”
  • Or even: “Lukas, don’t just tell the speaker her speech had bad structure, tell her exactly where you got lost”

I’m sure it’s nothing new to you that feedback should be specific and encouraging. But for me – being constantly corrected (in the way I give feedback) helped me increase the percentage of being specific and encouraging significantly.

3. Look beyond the magic

Do you sometimes have the feeling that a colleague of yours is so much better at what he/she is doing than you are? That what he/she is doing looks like magic?

I’ve seen more than 50 people give their Icebreaker (the first speech in Toastmasters). Each started at a different level (some could not say a full sentence while standing on the stage, some were quite experienced and confident already). Often I made a quick judgement: “Wow, this guy is so good already, he’ll be a star!”, or “This girl is a mess, not even Toastmasters will be able to help her”. But that guy never really cared to improve, so one year later, he was basically making the same mistakes as when he joined. While the girl decided that she’ll become a star herself. She practiced every day, read a few books on how to create compelling presentations, spent every Sunday afternoon rehearsing speeches with her friends in a park… And four months later, she was so good that people started asking her if she could be their mentor.

Sure you can read such stories in a myriad of management and self help books – but it was seeing it with my own eyes that made me really believe in it.

Now I try to apply this knowledge whenever I see some magic in my day job.

Do I get frustrated with that big Excel spreadsheet? Hmm, I probably need to improve my Excel modeling craft (let’s grab a book on that topic, try to model it a few times at home and see if it gets better).

Does it take me an hour to create a PowerPoint slide while to my colleague it takes only a few minutes? Maybe I should watch him work and see if there are some rules that he follows or tools he uses that make it easier for him.

Do I feel lost in a client meeting, while my colleague seems to own it? Well, most probably it’s not because I’m inherently incapable, but chances are he has some information that I don’t – so let’s ask him the next time what should I know about the meeting before it starts.

I’ve learned that when people are amazing, it’s not because of magic. It’s because they have the right information, the right tools, and enough practice in using them. And if I want to be amazing – I have to get the same.


Of course, people are different, and so are different the key takeaways they get from Toastmasters. In order to give you a more complete picture, I made a little research among my Toastmaster friends and asked them what THEIR unexpected takeaways were.

Here is what they answered:

Alex (Software Developer, Barclays): Working in Creativity Zone. Creativity Zone for me is changing the state from “I have to do it” to “How I can make it the best there is”. If you do some project at 11pm and you are tired, it’s kind of “just do it”. But if you make yourself a cup of nice tea, lay in your bed with some nice music on, chances are you will do it even better. Because speech crafting is the most difficult process for me and I discovered that if I force myself, I cannot produce something that I am proud of.

Bea (Business Coach, Mentor & Trainer, Business Coach Ltd. ): The most important learning for me is to know clearly my purpose with the speech. And less is more. Being simple, clear and concise is a challenge for most of the people.

Jakub (Relationship Manager, UniCredit Bank): Learning leadership skills like motivation, critical thinking or listening. Next, it is also great networking opportunity where you meet many inspiring people.

Anna (Project Manager, IBM): I joined Toastmasters not because of public speaking, but to learn how to receive feedback. I learned not only to receive it, but also to work with it. Once one learns this, the potential for growth has no limits.

Jitka (Area Manager, Being inspired by people who despite being successful are still eager to learn and improve. I have met there professionals from different industries who have different strengths and often different points of view than me.

Carlo (Marketing, Let’s Make): Surprisingly, my friends told me I looked like a leader (even before joining Toastmasters). But it wasn’t so for me. I was nervous when I was talking, thinking and acting, having in mind that I had to organise and lead others. But while I kept on talking, opening and closing meetings and being involved in decisions, being in such role became a sort of habit for me.

Mariana (International HR Manager and CrossRoads Toastmasters Club President): Planning and preparation, self awareness, mutual respect and setting up Facebook pages 🙂

As it is so often in life – you are likely to find what you seek. I didn’t mention all the possible takeaways – but if you’re thinking about your next development activity – those listed above can be a good starting point.


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

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