When District 91 (UK South) Club Growth Director was 13 years old, he started discussing with the employees of Paris Metro company where they should extend this and that metro line to serve people better. They said he had good ideas, but they did not have the means to implement them. This got him interested in politics.
I met Florian in August 2017 at the District Leader Training in Vancouver where we both started our terms as Club Growth Directors. In a group of 300 people, he stood out with his drive and enthusiasm. Now our year is coming to a close, so I invited him for a chat to ask about how his year went.
In this interview, Florian speaks about where he sees the biggest impact of the District on activities of clubs, about his passion for science and history and about his plans to enter politics.
Florian, it seems like you’re dedicating really a lot of time to Toastmasters. Why do you do that?
I’m passionate about growing the organization. More members equals more leaders. More leaders equals more ideas. This means new ways of doing things and new ways to push ourselves. On a personal level, I learned about Toastmasters in 2007, at that time I was studying at the University of Bath. It sounded interesting to me at that time. I went to the Toastmasters International website and found out that there was no club near enough that I could access it by public transport. The best option was to attend meetings in London, which was 90 minutes away. If there was a club nearby back then, I could have gone out of my comfort zone – and benefitted from Toastmasters. But this way, it took me another six years. That’s why I’m passionate about expanding our reach. I know there are more people in a similar situation to the one I was in 11 years ago.
How about for you personally, what is it giving to you? What I’m curious about is how are you benefitting from all the hours you are putting in it?
The reason why I joined Toastmasters was to stretch myself as a speaker and as a leader. In the future, I would like to move into the field of politics.
Wow, that’s interesting – tell me more about that!
I am very passionate about my countries – the plural is deliberate. I have two countries, France and the United Kingdom, which I consider to be my countries on an equal level. And what I observed on my leadership journey in Toastmasters is the importance of having a clear vision and being able to break it down to smaller parts. Something that is easy to understand. At the moment I am not as politically active as I once was, because Toastmasters is taking me much of my time. But there is a lot of things I observed in politics in the past few years and decades which got me interested.
Number one: Right now there is a huge demand within France and the UK for a clear vision. Questions like “What is the next step?”, “What is the future going to look like?”, “What can we believe in?”. At the same time, for those themes to get people inspired, they need to be simple to understand. This is a skill I can acquire in Toastmasters.
When did your interest in politics start?
I’ve always been interested in big picture Stuff: History, geography, trade between nations. Having studied for a chemist, I’m a jack of all trades in some respect. It kind of grew organically out of these interests. I will give you an example. I am also interested in transportation, trains and such things. I went to the library of the Paris metro company when I was 13. There I started discussing with those guys where we should extend this and that metro line to serve people better. So already as a kid I was coming up with ideas about how to make the Paris metro system better. I will never forget what they answered. They said: “Your ideas are very good. We as a company would agree with such approach – but at the end of the day we don’t have the money. It’s the politician who makes that decision and gives us the money.” If you’d like coming up with grand ideas, sooner or later you will be drawing to politics because you will realize that eventually none of your ideas will be implemented if you’re not in a position to decide – or at least influence the decision that will give your ideas the financial support.
That makes very good sense. This goes well with history, but how does this relate to your interests in chemistry and nuclear physics?
I’ve always been interested in science and history at the same time. I think they are far more related than people think. In science you are asking why things are happening in a certain way. When you take a nuclear reactor and you want to say why is it when Uranium 235 is hit by a neutron you get between 2 and 3 neutrons produced as a result, of the reaction – our job, as scientists, is to explain why this happened and calculate the probabilities. And history is quite similar. When you look at history from a very big picture level, you understand why today’s world ended up the way it is right now. Why certain languages are spoken in certain countries. Why the boundaries in Europe look in a certain way. Why even you have crises in today’s world – such as North Korea or Middle East. I like to take historical analysis quite far back.
I’ve actually done that in Toastmasters to an extent. Something fascinating about the history of Toastmasters in the United Kingdom. Is that it used to be a much bigger organization 50 years ago than it is now. It’s something that many people don’t know nowadays. But it’s a fascinating historical fact. Toastmasters started growing very fast in the 1940’s and 1950’s and 1960’s until eventually it formed its own Territorial Council and Toastmasters in the UK became a District. Some of the people – speaking of 250 clubs at the time – some clubs agreed to join what became District 71, others decided to form their own organization – the Association of Speakers Clubs with a huge presence in Scotland and Northern England. Not so much in London and the South of the UK. This chapter in Toastmasters history that goes 50 years back still explains today why today we as an organization do not have that many clubs in Scotland and Northern England. This is fascinating. Things are changing now after the work John Cox is doing in District 71, but it is interesting to see today’s situation taking into account the historical background.
Definitely. There is one thing that I’m curious about. In different countries the culture of Toastmasters differs. Since you traveled outside your own District, you attended the District Conference of D59 in Milan as well as the TLI in Belgium. Can you compare the Toastmasters culture in the UK and in continental Europe?
I would say that what we have in common is by far bigger than any differences we may have. From Brussels, Milan as well as Vancouver, we are people from all over the world, but we all speak the same language. Pathways, DTM, CC, CL… This soup of acronyms are terms every Toastmaster understands. This helps you break the ice almost immediately. In terms of differences – some of the differences between the UK and continental Europe are smaller than differences you have between some clubs in London.
For example – some clubs are more than 30 years old, some are just one or two years old. My own example: London Victorians. We are a very dynamic club as the average age is low thirties. We’re competitive, we want to push ourselves all the time. If I look at another club I’m starting right now in my home town of Beckenham the club culture is different. It’s rather people in their late thirties and forties, families with kids, it’s more sort of a community where we have tea and coffee during the break and chat about various things. We are still working on becoming better speakers and leaders, but the club culture is distinct. And this is a great thing. We are all different. Some people may visit a club as a guest and they may say: “You know what, I don’t think this is for me.” That’s okay. They may then visit another club where they will be more of a match. Finally, in London there is a large corporate sector and a large number of corporate clubs. These are very different from community clubs. They only have one hour to run a meeting – so the meetings are very dynamic, very sharp. You get 3 speeches and Table Topics within one hour. That is something that would be very difficult to replicate in a community club. All these differences are to me ways we can learn from each other – and something that offers cross-pollination.
On a slightly different note – you said you found out about Toastmasters in 2007 – but you joined only in 2013. 5 years now. What is it about Toastmasters that you see differently today than you saw 5 years ago.
In one word – Leadership. When I first learned about Toastmasters, I thought it was going to be only about Public Speaking. But from the first meeting, I became aware of the leadership aspect. When I met Hillary Briggs – at that time past District Director – she opened my eyes. She explained all about the structure, hierarchy and the leadership opportunities. And that I could learn a lot besides speaking. Thanks to Toastmasters I improved speaking, leadership as well as confidence. Today I am way more confident than I was five years ago. Unbelievably so in some respect. And I am still learning.
Speaking about leadership – you will be running for the position of Program Quality Director in your District. My question is – what is your vision for that role? What would you like to achieve?
Carry on the work I’ve done this year as Club Growth Director, supporting clubs and members to grow. This time really focusing on excellence and empowerment. What I mean by that: Training. Club Officer Training and District Officer Training is something we do pretty well, but not as well as I would like it to be. Often I see Club Officers who are new to their role, who are keen to get going, but do not necessarily identify the information, they do not know where to get the knowledge from – and they only know the basic things. This is where the Club Officer Training can make a massive difference. In raising the standard of our leaders. What I enjoyed the most as Area Director was delivering Club Officer Training. Getting people to do case studies, interact and solve challenges together – this is something that is really powerful. If we empower our leaders from the “get go”, they will start flying not after six months, but right off the bat. This is what we want. Toastmasters is providing us with a lot of guidance already when the Club Leadership and District Leadership Handbook, but we can do more than that.
In our District we have some people who have done absolutely extraordinary things on club level – and we can leverage their experience more. Building on that – we can leverage online training. We can’t do the Club Officer Trainings online, I understand the reason why – but we can do a lot more. We can provide webinars, online Q&A and in general provide a forum for our leaders and members where they can ask questions and get further tips and ideas for their roles. In District 91 and 95, geography is a challenge. In District 91, going from one end to another, it’s 5 hours by train or six hours driving. In 95, we are talking of a two hour flight. Online trainings can do a lot of magic as distance is not a challenge anymore.
Speaking about the online trainings and webinars – I know that you already ran quite a few as Club Growth Director. But you also initiated other activities – you were active in your YouTube channel, you created a newsletter sending an update every fortnight… My question is – you did a lot of activities. Can you tell me which of all those activities you believe made the biggest difference – and why.
If I really had to pick one, I would pick the Demo Box initiative. This has been quite impactful supporting both new and existing clubs. Demo Box is a free box that we send to the leaders of new and existing clubs for the case when they run a demonstration meeting for a new club or an open house meeting for existing clubs. In that box you have name badges, topic cards for Table Topics, marketing materials, some flyers and some guest cards and some welcome to Toastmasters ribbons. It’s been really exciting to see the new clubs using them. To me this is one of the things with which we can show that District can provide a real practical support to the clubs and harness the economies of scale which goes with producing of these things in large numbers.
I understand. If you develop a flyer on a District level, 100, 200, 300 clubs can use it.
With that you minimize the unit cost. Economies of scale are good to support the clubs.
Good stuff. Florian, is there anything else you would like to give as your last words?
Toastmasters made a great impact on my life. Before I joined, I was a shy and nervous young man. After I joined, I sort of “flew out of the nest”. I gained a lot of new skills and improved my confidence. This is why today I love giving back to the organization. Because it gave me so much.
Thanks for the interview – and I’ll see you soon!
Header image photo credits: Shaheen Mufti.