Earning Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) in 2 Years: My Perspective of “How” and “Why”
This article is partly my response to “Toastmasters: Is a DTM Really Distinguished?”
Disclaimer: I am telling my own story and expressing my own opinions. I do not represent the Toastmasters organization with these comments.
On July 1, 2016, just short of 2 years after I joined Toastmasters, I earned the Distinguished Toastmaster award, the highest award that one could earn in Toastmasters International’s education program. Since people have asked me, from time to time, how and why I have done it, I thought I would share.
Like most people who have joined Toastmasters, I did not join because I wanted to be a [insert Toastmasters designation here]. There had been several reasons for me to join Toastmasters. At that time, the most pressing one was that I was going to present a conference session in several months, and I wanted to give an excellent presentation.
I ended up joining two clubs so that I could speak more, practice speaking as much as possible, and get my Competent Communicator award just in time for the conference. Call me superstitious, but being “certified” (I was issued a certificate after all) by an international organization that I was a “competent communicator” really boosted my confidence that I would do just fine with my presentation.
Indeed, it was a success. Now what? I could have declared “Mission Accomplished” and stopped attending Toastmasters. However, I had just given more speeches in four months than I did in the previous four years. Did I want to stop practicing and possibly fall back to wherever I was before? No way. Since Toastmasters International gave me two advanced communication manuals for free, I could work on those while I thought about my next move.
Shortly after, one of my clubs had their officer election. The then-VP Education asked me if I would like to run for a position. I had almost no idea what other officers did for their positions, but at least I knew what she did. At the beginning of every meeting, she stood in front of the club, encouraged members to sign up for functionary roles, and passed around the signup sheet. That set apart VP Education from other positions. I ran successfully for the position.
Among all club officer positions, VP Education was arguably the hardest and came with the most workload. However, it did come with unique opportunities, such as having a vote at the District Business Meeting. When the call for the meeting came from the District, I was curious about what it was about, so I attended. As I read the reports from the Area Directors in the delegates’ packet, I felt honored to be in one of the strongest clubs in the district. I thought I could help some clubs that were not doing so well. I applied and was appointed as an Area Director.
Just like many of my newly-minted, super-enthusiastic fellow Area Directors, I attended one Toastmasters-related workshop after another. One of those was the Club Mentor training. At the event, I learned that one of the new clubs that recently chartered was very close to my workplace. I could either walk or take a free shuttle bus there. What a coincidence! Why shouldn’t I mentor that club? To add to the coincidence, one of the two mentors who initially signed up could not do it because of her work schedule. I jumped right in. Over the next six months, I attended almost all of their meetings. It was uplifting to see a group of people, most of whom did not know about Toastmasters before, get excited about speaking in front of other people. They were also happy that someone was there to help them get up to speed in Toastmasters.
While diligently fulfilling my duties as an Area Director and a Club Mentor, I kept working on and giving speeches. Besides giving up a lot of time from other activities (e.g. video games) and working on my speeches as much as I could (e.g. on the bus), I came up with a way to quickly develop speeches with an outline. I made a worksheet for developing such outline with several labeled steps. I even incorporated it into my presentations of the “Organizing Your Speech” education module, which I presented from time to time to help other members write their speeches.
One of my clubs had a lot of working professionals. Some of them traveled a lot, while others often had unexpected work overtime, causing them to drop out at the last minute from speaking. I made it a habit to be ready to speak every time I attended a club meeting. I ended up covering for those speakers many times.
My other club was a college club, with most of its members being students. Their participation fluctuated throughout the school year. Moreover, the club used to take a hiatus each summer since most of its members were away. I convinced the club to meet year-long as long as I led those meetings when nobody else could. With little “competition”, I ended up speaking almost every week in the summer, including conducting an “Art of Effective Evaluation” workshop, which counted towards my Advanced Communicator Gold award.
Being an Area Director created even more speaking opportunities for me. I had good relationships with my clubs, and they knew where to get help when they needed a speaker. At one point, one of the clubs in my area was struggling. Sometimes, they asked me to speak at their meetings because they had no speaker and considered canceling those meetings. It also benefited me since I got to speak more and got outside my comfort zones (i.e. my home clubs).
Reflecting on these two years, much of them was about having the right opportunities. What if I stumbled upon another club officer position? Then I probably would not have attended the District Business Meeting. What if I slept in on that day? Then I might not have been inspired to be an Area Director, and so on. But it was also about seizing those opportunities.
Why did I earn my DTM in two years?
By now, hopefully, my answer is clear: No, I did not set out to earn my DTM in two years. I just seized many opportunities that were too good to pass up, and collectively, they happened to allow me to earn my DTM in such time frame.
I am not aware of any officially announced statistics, but unofficial guesstimates that I have seen tend to be not too far off from about 8 years. Yes, I am aware that my journey to my (first) DTM is much shorter than usual, in term of the length of time. Yes, cases like mine are not the norm.
The action of getting a DTM in a shorter-than-average amount of time has been associated with “rushing” or “in a hurry”, doing the minimum work or less, etc. There are even suggestions, backed by little more than speculations, that such DTMs earned must have compromised quality or integrity.
I disagree with these associations and suggestions.
What if everything were the same, except the person who submitted my DTM application sat on it for, say, 6 year, before submitting it? What if I did exactly the same tasks but spread them out across 8 years? What if I did exactly the same tasks but had taken a 6-year time-out from Toastmasters in the middle? Then, to those critics who judge a DTM’s quality by the time elapsed before the designation is earned, my DTM would have been “quality” instead of “rushed.” It does not make sense.
With the uncertainty of Pathways (formerly Revitalized Education Program) looming for the past several years, there have been valid reasons to not stretch one’s journey to DTM too much. DTM or otherwise, in and outside Toastmasters, timely completion of tasks is often important for success, and is not always “rushing for the sake of rushing”. In fact, those who still want to spend a decade or two crafting their DTMs under the existing education program might be disappointed sooner or later.
Besides, what if achieving DTM in a short time is not a goal by itself but the result of something else that is worthwhile? For example, my experience and my observation of my fellow Area Directors are that things accelerate once you serve at this position. Before one knows it, he/she might be quite close to getting a DTM, so why not finish the requirements and earn it? It is not just for oneself. Under the current incentive systems, it is for your club(s) too, since it gets credit in DCP and gains a DTM in its membership roster.
By the time I earned my DTM, I had given about twice the required number of speeches, conducted two workshops (verses one required), served five terms between two clubs as club officer (verses one required), served as a committee member or functionary in a dozen area/division speech contests and two TLIs (verses none required), etc. I definitely met and exceeded the requirements.
Would I recommend everyone to earn their DTM exactly as I did? No. The program offers a lot of flexibility, and they have to judge for themselves whether a particular, valid way works for them. Have I earned my DTM via the “best” method? There are so many things that I could have done differently, with the help of hindsight, regardless of the time frame of the journey. But perhaps there is simply no “best” method in any actionable sense. It does not seem very fair to scrutinize, judge, or even slander those who have earned their DTMs in a shorter time frame if the same is not done towards other DTMs.
Why have I written this article?
I am fortunate to have never come across those critical views in person. Those who know what DTM is have viewed mine with nothing but admiration.
However, the rest of the world, especially the Internet, is a very different place where some people apparently feel very free to say whatever they want. I hope to help set the record straight.
The requirements for earning DTM are clearly set and stated by Toastmasters International. People can take it as what it is, and if they do not want to automatically think of each and every DTM earned as the greatest achievement in the world, they do not have to. The issue is when some critics offer their opinions on the “right” way to earn a DTM, commingle these opinions with the official requirements, and then suggest that some DTM-holders have not met the “real” requirements (i.e. some ambiguous criteria that the critics themselves have come up with regardless of the official requirements) and thus have not “truly” earned the DTM. While these critics are free to craft their own “Quality DTM” or “Distinguished-And-A-Member-For-A-While Toastmaster” or some other designations not endorsed by Toastmasters International, it is not within their rights to smear the official DTM designation or the achievements of those who have earned it.
A lot of the practices that these critics have portrayed as “shortcuts” that those (and perhaps only those) who want to earn a DTM in a “hurry” take are not even intrinsically problematic.
One such example is reusing a speech’s content across multiple occasions of speech-giving. What is wrong with that? Not necessarily anything. I believe that most members want to improve their public-speaking skills, not their speech-writing skills, the most. Writing a speech, especially coming up with an idea, can take a lot of time. Multiply that by 10, if one is to come up with a new speech for each of the 10 projects in the Competent Communication manual (which is not a requirement but is usually how it is done). Moreover, nobody has an infinite amount of time. Time spent writing a new speech is time not spent on giving a speech, refining another speech, etc. Time after time, I have seen member postponing giving more speeches because they do not have the time and/or motivation to write yet another new speech. Alternatively, some of them end up giving unprepared speeches anyway. It does not have to be like that. On the other hand, while not required, repeating a speech while addressing previous feedback can be a great way to improve at speaking. Were you so nervous while giving a speech that you did not use those relevant hand gestures that you planned in advance? Is your failure cast in stone? No, and it is not the end of the world either. You are free to focus on that when you give the speech a second time. I welcome the fact that one can do it if he/she wishes to. In fact, in speech contests, most contestants who advance give the same speeches at the club, area, division, district, and even semi-final levels. In the recent contest seasons, I have seen many very motivated contestants giving their speeches again and again at different clubs. Many of them ended up receiving and incorporating valuable feedback each time, deciding what worked and what needed to be changed. By the time of higher-level contests, I could tell the improvements that they have made. Now, imagine what would have happened if there was a rule that the speaker has to give a completely brand-new, throwaway, speech every single time. That would also mean that none of the speakers could have benefited from speech-specific suggestions that they have previously received.
Another example is joining and participating in two or more clubs, which some have contemptuously called “club jumping”. Despite making it sound bad, as far as I know, these critics have not pointed out what is wrong with this practice. On the other hand, being a member of two or more clubs is perfectly okay and not unusual — Toastmasters International calls this “dual membership” and there is a checkbox for it on the membership application. I am a member of two clubs that are quite different. That allows me to not only give more speeches in the same time frame, but also give different types of speeches. One club is smaller, more casual, and has less “competition” for speaker slots. I felt comfortable there to give some of the “fun” speeches (such as accepting a made-up award for Special Occasion Speeches #5). It would have sat less well with my other club and possibly seen as a suboptimal use of the speaking slot. Another club has more members and its meetings have larger audiences comparable to work-related settings. Speaking in front of them makes a better practice for future work-related or even professional speeches. The meeting room’s U-shaped layout also lets me practice facing the audience on three sides (front & left & right). By the way, tracking progress is very much possible even though it is less straightforward than if one only attended one club. I track all of my 100+ speeches and 200+ functionary role servings on a spreadsheet and have no problem showing my progress whenever needed (e.g. when submitting an award application).
Earning DTM might not mean you will be seen as being distinguished. For example, my home clubs have a lot of relatively new members, and many of them do not know what DTM is. Since only a small percentage of members have any Toastmasters designations, we do not print them on agendas or name tags. Even in my home clubs, only small percentages of members know about my designation. They know me, not because of my designation, but because I am one of those members who usually shows up early and leaves late to help with setup/clean-up, always eager to fill in for a functionary role or help another member get up to speed, etc.
Being a DTM gives you essentially no perks. You do not get to attend contests or conferences for free. You do not automatically get treated or acknowledged as a dignitary. Outside Toastmasters (e.g. job-seeking), chances are that DTM is an unknown acronym that does not help much either. On the other hand, being a DTM increases your chance of being asked to help with contests and conferences, if that is your thing.
A DTM is not a certification of excellent speaking skills, nor it should be. Toastmasters International does have the Accredited Speaker (AS) program that recognizes those who are the most skillful at giving speeches for a living. Some districts also have additional credentials that require a certain level of proficiency at public speaking. For example, in District 1’s Speakers Bureau, members can audition for the designation of Qualified Speaker (QS). With all these other programs in place, why are some still demanding that we twist and bend DTM’s meaning to become what it is not?
On the other hand, DTM is a light in your hands that can inspire others. “I am going to get my DTM like [my name],” I heard a member telling others at a meeting. This member, who once stagnated in his progress, started to give one manual speech after another, brought the CL tracking sheet with them at every meeting, and even chaired a speech contest. If I could be a medium for motivating or inspiring others, then why not?
Three years after joining Toastmasters and a year after getting my DTM. I have completed my two one-year terms, first as an Area Director and then as a Division Director. My Area achieved Select Distinguished status and my Division achieved President’s Distinguished status. Beyond these, there were more intangible achievements. When I visited clubs, I was confident that members were happy that I visited, and they knew that they could count on me. Together, we have accomplished a lot and made a lot of good memories. The journey has been so much more than pursuing a three-letter designation, and I have a number of things to show for. You are welcome to visit my clubs, compare how I speak now against my ice-breaker speech (recorded), and see for yourself how far I have come along. And those people who are so sure that people like me (who have earned our DTM relatively quickly while doing much more than minimum work) do not exist that they would “bet” on it are welcome to visit too. Chances are that I will be personally greeting you — bring your checks!
Is a DTM really distinguished? There are quite a few DTM in the world, each having his/her own story and a slightly different path to DTM. I do not like generalization anyway. In particular, I do not like clouding the achievement of a whole group just because the group is now so large and there is always a possibility that some of them might have less integrity than the rest. Personally, even though people are at times conscious about credits, I have never met a DTM who did not meet the requirements. Yet.
I can only speak for myself. I will most likely never land on some List of Famous Toastmasters or become one of the top officials in Toastmasters. I am honored to be seen by some as being distinguished, whether that is because they know I am a DTM or because they have seen my work (probably the latter). Some do not see me as being distinguished, and among these people, some will never see me as being distinguished because of things such as my ethnicity or my accent. And the Internet has taught me that I will always be seen by some for my supposed shortcut-taking and not much else. I do not mind not being seen as being distinguished, DTM or not. I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I am going to keep working on my weaknesses while retaining my strengths. That is why I still give speeches, serve as functionaries, etc. even though they will not earn me a new education designation.
But perhaps the question of distinguished or not is overrated in the first place. One of the most touching moments of my journey happened at a Fall District Conference, during the DTM celebration ceremony. We, the newly-minted DTMs, lined up, holding candle-shaped flashlights. Then, we walked around the ballroom, walked past a line of established DTMs as we gave them high-fives (and vice versa). As I approached the line, I realized that I actually recognized and could be recognized by most of them, mostly because they came and helped out with my training and contests, as well as countless club and district events. They were there and mentored me, officially and unofficially. A lot of them had been in Toastmasters for a decade or more, or had served in the district for several years, or both. Who was I to say that I was distinguished? These people were distinguished. I was just happy to tag along, and get recognized and accepted by them as being one of them (i.e. as a fellow DTM). I happily high-five most of them and even hugged many of them.
No, I am not telling you to go earn your DTM in 2 years. Only you can decide if it is in your best interest to earn your DTM in 2 years, or earn your DTM, or join Toastmasters for that matter.