Photo by Coley Christine

Toastmaster: A Blank Slate of Possibilities

Many times people have said that the Toastmaster role is:

“Too hard and complicated…”

“Don’t have time, too busy…” Or

“Not really my cup of tea…”

I’ve set out to demystify the value of the Toastmaster role in communication by sharing our club’s experiences to spark a conversation with veterans, newbies or anyone who wants to chime in about how we can articulate its value more clearly.

The Toastmaster is responsible for preparing and leading the meeting from beginning to end. On the surface it seems like an admin job or a hosting job for Conan O’Brien. The truth is, it’s neither! If the role is done step by step according to the manual, it can be effortless and fun.

The typical approach is “I’ll do everything and carry the burden myself.” I know this because that was my approach for many months back in 2012. But Ralph Smedley said, “It’s the capacity to look ahead, think ahead, plan ahead and then influence other people to go ahead on the plan.” We’re pretty good at the first part, “looking, thinking and planning ahead,” but the “influencing” part is at times forgotten. Influencing requires communication and team effort. You will have to practice these skills for survival at some point in the real world unless you are living in a planet without other human beings (wait, you wouldn’t be reading this!).

Let’s take a look at the opportunities to influence.

It Ain’t a Lonely Role

The preparation for the meeting and execution of it is a team effort. Every role in the meeting is supporting the Toastmaster and the meeting and vice versa. When you look at the schedule, it seems that the Toastmaster carries the burden of recruiting/confirming every single role in the roster. That’s scary! We all have full-time jobs and even with the best intentions in the world, it’s not possible to do everything on our own. We need a team and hence delegation comes to the rescue. A General Evaluator can help recruit/confirm the Evaluators and the Joke Master. Or other people can influence on your behalf. There are many possibilities, some unimaginable waiting to be discover by our club. But sometimes we need a knock on the door to ask for help.

Here’s another team effort area. Other roles provide introductions to the Toastmaster ahead of the meeting for a reason: to help the audience and the other roles. This tends to be done over email but it’s not the only form of communication. If you know ahead of time who is speaking next week, ask him or her at the meeting or vice versa (You’ll be doing a favor to the speaker so he can start thinking about his speech. And on the other side, the speaker/evaluator or any other person with a role will be helping the Toastmaster get ready). Now at times the Toastmaster takes the introductions and recites them straight from the email. Reading notes from the paper is ok, but we may have written that introduction too quickly and it needs refinement in order for the audience to understand. Remember how we write is not how we speak. The Toastmaster has an opportunity to make a judgment call for the audience and the roles can help the Toastmaster have an awesome meeting by providing what he needs.

D’oh! Cancellations!

There are always unexpected circumstances that are out of our control at work and in our lives. It’s the deal we get for living on planet Earth with other humans. Yet the more we encounter these situations, the better we become at “proactively” finding a solution and also becoming optimists.

I remembered back in 2012 when I had a couple of cancellations, I immediately went into panic mode and complained about the horrible situations and carried this mood into the meeting. You can imagine how the meeting went.

Now in 2014, even as a seasoned member cancellations still have happened to me, even for special events, where the team prepared ahead of time. I’ve changed the outlook and the approach. Again, a meeting is a team effort. It’s important to communicate with others so we can get help and share the ownership of the issue. For the model meeting recently, a cancellation came in an hour before. First thing I did is shared this with everybody before diving into calls. Our fellow officers jumped in immediately to recruit someone to take the lead. This can only happen if we don’t panic, keep a clear mind and make this a team effort. As we iterate this over time, there’s a chance we’ll become optimists.

A Toastmaster Is Present “AT” the Meeting

During the meeting, the Toastmaster has an active role beyond just “presenting” the speakers. The Toastmasters is present. To be Present is to listen. Why does that matter?

Someone once said to me, “I am not funny so I can’t really be an entertaining Toastmaster.” Here’s the truth, I’m also not funny either; I am an introvert. But I’ve learned to listen and to be present. Comedians and even politicians listen up to what people are saying and pick up on that content for reference later and the result is laughter and appreciation (Bill Clinton is good at this!). Two members from our club have shown craftsmanship in this area.

During Sophia’s Entertaining Speech Workshop I made a comment about how angry my mom was when I told her I hit the car. Antonio who was up next in Table Topics, referenced what I’ve said and put his own remark from Bart Simpson. The audience and I were laughing with him.

At the Model Meeting, Sean evaluated Trevor on his speech. At the end he concluded by bringing up two references from Table Topics about the zombie- apocalypse-nuclear war. Everyone again was laughing with him.

Don’t think about being funny, instead listen up and connect with people. Try it when you are Toastmasters next time and stay on the lookout for people’s reactions.

Now even with a prepared agenda, we think we have control of running the entire meeting but sometimes we may not be able to control people’s time. That’s when many decisions have to be made about what to cut and what to keep for the meeting. Practicing decision-making improves your succinctness in communication. At the end of the Model Meeting, I was given the floor back a few minutes late. I had prepared a 2-minute remark, which became a 30 second remark. In the real world, you may only have 30 seconds to pitch your grand idea to get money; you have to practice your succinctness in order to make others understand.

I’ve walked you through observations and reflections I’ve made about the Toastmaster role. You’re not going to get all of the skills right from the beginning or in one shot, it takes definitely a lot of effort and practice to develop them. So why bother? Jump into the role to be “aware” of those skills so you know what you are looking for. You will see a lot of these situations happen in your personal and professional life over and over. Our club provides you a safe space to practice so you can be a confident communicator in high-stake pressure situations.