Do you enjoy watching Ted Talks? I am often amazed how natural it is for some people to step on stage and deliver speeches that capture everyone’s attention as well as leave their audience inspired and impressed. When I found myself stumbling across another one of those fascinating Ted Talks on Social Media a couple of months back, I peeked into the comment section out of curiosity for the subject.
A discussion took place on how to practice public speaking, and someone mentioned that a great resource to tap into would be Toastmasters International. I had never really heard of Toastmasters before, but my interest was lit and so I added it to my list of topics to explore further.
When I did my research, I learned that Toastmasters is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1924 and is organized in 16.600 clubs worldwide. Their mission is to help people become more effective communicators and really anyone who aims to practice public speaking in a save and trustful environment can become a member.
Zooming into the Chicago landscape of Toastmasters, I was stunned by how many independent clubs existed in very short distance to one another. I was able to locate six different clubs at least, which are just a stone’s throw away from my home. All of them seemed open to welcoming new members, which encouraged me to reach out to find out more.
My motivation to dive into Toastmasters came from a desire to explore how it works, mix and mingle with the locals and see some of Chicago’s locations which I would otherwise not step a foot into. I was obviously also interested in improving my public speaking skills; however, this did not rank top on my list at the time.
I heard back from most clubs and decided to visit three of them in person. Most clubs offer for anyone with interest to come and sit in one of their regular meetings. These typically take place weekly or bi-weekly and run for 45min to 1hour over lunch or during evenings. This allows people to attend despite a fulltime work schedule.
I so found myself walking to my first Toastmasters event at the School of Law, in anticipation that I would be watching, maybe taking some notes and making up my mind about what was there to expect, should I decide to become a regular member.
I got there a little earlier to meet the Head of the Club (aka Vice President) prior to everyone else arriving and was greeted very warmly by anyone who entered the meeting room as we got closer to the start of the session.
We ended up being around 10 people in total that day, which I learned was at the lower end in terms of the number of participants. I met people from all walks of life, with different profession, nationality and age, which perfectly represented a snapshot of Chicago’s diverse population.
At the beginning of the meeting, roles were assigned on a voluntary basis to give the session structure and ensure efficiency. There always is someone assuming the role of the toastmaster (master of ceremony so to say), a timekeeper, a grammarian, a person who presents the thought of the day, another person who delivers a prepared speech, another person who moderates so-called ‘table topics’ and finally an overall evaluator.
This seemed way more organized than I expected. I was excited to discover what else would happen after everyone briefly introduced the purpose of their role (I never found out whether they always do that as part of the protocol, or if it was something they did for me).
After the toastmaster (note: formally referred to as Madam or Sir Toastmaster) officially opened the meeting, there was an opportunity to volunteer for a 1-2min unprepared speech on a random topic, which would be assigned by the person responsible for table topics.
This is called ‘impromptu speaking’ and teaches spontaneous reactions in a professional setting on any given topic. Those who volunteered would go up front, receive a round of applause from the audience for choosing to take up the challenge (there was a lot of applauding during that hour) and were then presented their topic.
People gave speeches on ‘the 3 lessons they learned this past month’, ‘something they are most grateful for this past month’, ‘their most memorable event this past month’ and ‘when did perfectionism get in your way’. The topic is completely up to the person in charge and could obviously cover any thinkable subject (well … almost).
I enjoyed listening to the speeches while at the same time acknowledging the different skill sets and levels of comfort that everyone displayed. I was impressed by how quickly some of the speakers were able to jump right into the topic and give incredible mini speeches, while for others it was more of a struggle. And before I knew, I was ‘volunteered’ as well, thankfully given the choice of topic from all the topics I had already heard.
I did not expect that, but hey, there was no way to chicken out. I tried my best to share in 1-2min what I was grateful for the past month, knowing that somewhere in this room there was someone counting all my filler words (“and”, “so”, “well”, “aehm”) and keeping exact track of my time.
There was clapping again after each mini speech. Once everyone has had their turn (I did wonder why they call it volunteering if everyone ends up speaking), someone presented the thought of the day, which I remember being “Perfect is the enemy of good enough”. This was supposed to serve as inspiration and trigger a little bit of a discussion.
It was now time for the day’s speech, which can be considered the heart of each session. The topic the speaker had chosen and meticuously prepared for was “The fear of public speaking” (haha, what a coincidence), which I believe was scheduled to consume exactly 6min.
I could tell that the speaker was very routinized in giving speeches and I was hardly able to find anything I would have suggested to do differently. In fact, it was perfect. There were no slides, no notes, a good structure and very compelling messages, which caught the audience’s attention throughout the whole time. Even the timing was spot on. This looked like someone with a lot of practice, who has given many great speeches before.
The evaluation portion of the meeting started with the evaluator coming up front (clapping), followed by the timekeeper (clapping) and the grammarian (clapping). Everyone was presented their duration of speaking as well as any filler words used (and gosh there were plenty).
My mini speech took 1.11min (thank you for being so precise), I used 7 ‘aems’ (geeze, that’s 1 in every 16 seconds) and 1 ‘so’. More detailed feedback was provided on the day’s prepared speech regarding its content, structure and style. Before Madam Toastmaster officially adjourned the meeting, the next week’s speaker was determined.
I visited two more clubs, one of which gathered in a Bank’s fancy conference room with everyone wearing suit and tie and one in an Export Company where donuts and coffee were served. The roles and structure of the sessions were comparable. However, the sessions’ climate and certainly size of the groups varied slightly, ranging from 8 participants to up to 25. While I was prepared to join in for any more spontaneous speech requests at the two other clubs I visited, I was never ‘volunteered’ again.
I also played with the thought of joining one of the clubs, however, taking a closer look at my weekly schedule, I realized that I truly did not have any more time on my calendar. But I was thankful for the experience and strongly believe that it is a fantastic opportunity for anyone who intends to practice their public speaking skills in a more comfortable environment.
Some members even use Toastmasters to practice presentations before they are due at work and get great advice on how to improve and grow more self-confident. It is also a nice way to network and step out of our comfort zone by speaking up and using our voice more frequently and confidently.