7 Invaluable skills you learn in Toastmasters

366525873_44d41baae9My first real job involved occasional public speaking, and looking back I’d have to assess my performance as “uneven.”

Sometimes I was relaxed and confident, other times, quite nervous. Sometimes I connected with the audience, other times, I didn’t even come close.

I was frustrated because I wanted to be a good speaker all the time, not just from time to time. But I’d never had training in public speaking. Until the day—many, many years later—that I got up my nerve and walked into a Toastmasters meeting.

There I was warmly welcomed and sat back to enjoy the proceedings. I went back the next week and the week after and then I joined. That was over 9 years and 70 some speeches ago.

As I expected, I became a better public speaker. An unexpected bonus, however, was the other  invaluable skills which you learn in Toastmasters.

1.  How to write for the ear

Writing a speech is different from writing a report or an article. A speech is more informal, more conversational:  You need to write for the ear rather than for the eye. Writing speeches has taught me how to do that. And as an unexpected bonus, it  has improved all my writing.

2.  How to prepare different types of speeches for different occasions

In Toastmasters, you learn to write and present not just a speech but many types of speeches, such as informative, persuasive, and entertaining. This involves selecting a topic that fits, doing research in some cases, writing and re-writing, putting together any props or visual aids, and then practicing it over and over.

Some examples of titles and types of speeches I’ve given are:

  • How to Do the Heimlich Maneuver, A Demonstration Speech (using a human prop)
  • Multi-tasking Madness, A Humorous Speech (which was actually on a serious topic but had a humorous opening and conclusion),  and
  • Travels through Time and Space, An After-dinner Speech (about my love of reading)

How to use personal stories in a good way

There’s nothing more effective in enhancing your own credibility and connecting with an audience than using personal stories. People love these stories and learn from them.

In my professional career in technical, regulatory fields, there wasn’t much opportunity for personal storytelling.  But in TM I’ve learned to incorporate stories from my personal experience.

I’ve also learned that using personal stories is  delicate. And here’s why:

  • Talking about a terrible personal experience which happened recently—such as a death in the family—is not a good idea. I’ve seen speakers break down while doing this because they’re still processing the event. It’s much too early to speak about it to a roomful of people.
  • Giving TMI (too much information) makes people in the audience squirmy and  uncomfortable, and
  • Talking about family members in a way which threatens their privacy or trust is not right. I use a lot of stories which include family members, and I’m conscious of the need to be respectful.

My youngest child has provided some great speech material over the years, and I have often talked about her. I’ve also talked about my first date with my BF who’s a member of my current TM club.  (It was an unusual and wonderful date, but I would never use that story in a speech if it made him even a little bit uncomfortable.)

 4.  How to conduct enjoyable meetings that end on time

Each meeting has a designated TM who does much of the behind-the-scenes preparation, such as

  • contacting the speakers and others,
  • preparing an agenda,
  • selecting a theme for the meeting, such as School Daze or Singing in the Rain (hey, it’s Seattle),
  • making  entertaining remarks related to the theme to get things warmed up,
  • introducing the speakers, and
  • keeping the meeting running smoothly.

And that’s when everything goes well. Being the TM also requires coming up with a Plan B when things don’t go so well, such as when traffic is even slower than usual and the first two speakers are stuck on an interstate highway somewhere.

 5. How to give supportive evaluations to help other speakers improve

At TM meetings, every speaker gets an evaluation. The evaluator talks about what the speaker did well and suggests ways to make the speech even better. When I evaluate a speaker, I usually try to figure out the one or two things which would help him make the biggest improvement in the shortest amount of time. 

An unexpected bonus in learning to give evaluations has been the ability to evaluate others and help them to improve outside of TM. For example, I’ve used my skills to help friends prepare for a job interview.  We role-play the interview, and I evaluate my friend’s responses: What she did well and suggestions for improvement in the real interview.

6.  How to benefit from evaluations without getting defensive

At  first I found it a bit unnerving to be evaluated at a TM meeting, but the take-away message is always supportive:  you did some things very well, and here are some things you could do to make your speech even better.

The model for learning to be a good public speaker is the same as the model for learning just about anything. You try it, get some feedback, try it again using the feedback you got last time,  get some more feedback, and so on. And it works!

  7.  How to answer a question you didn’t expect when you don’t have time to think  

Most TM meetings have a section  called Table Topics where a designated Topic Master asks a question and calls on a member to answer. The question could be anything:

What’s the worse job you ever had?  If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why? What’s your favorite movie and why do you like it so much? The member stands up—and with virtually no time to think—gives as coherent an answer as he can.

Doing this every week builds skill in impromptu speaking which is is a huge help in those real-world situations where a co-worker or your boss suddenly turns to you in a meeting and says, “So, Arnold, what do you think about this?”

If you want to learn these invaluable skills; meet interesting, intelligent, and very supportive people; and have a huge amount of fun in the process, I highly recommend Toastmasters.  To find a group near you, go to www.toastmasters.org and search on country, state, and city to find clubs in your area.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Madeleine Kolb 10/18/2012, 10:29 am

    Thanks, Todd.
    I’m always happy to help.

  • Todd Cudaback 10/18/2012, 8:15 am

    Good day my friend :) I was doing research for a speech and came across your blog. Very helpful material


  • Madeleine Kolb 05/03/2010, 5:49 pm

    @Leah, Thank you for your comment. I think you’d really enjoy Toastmasters. One of the great things about it is the interesting, supportive, and talented people you meet.

    Yes, the pause! It’s surprisingly hard to do because–to the speaker–even the briefest pause seems as if it’s lasting much too long, but to the audience it seems just right. I read somewhere that Charles Dickens was an absolute master of the pause; his pauses were so long that ladies swooned away. (Of course, that was another era.)

  • Leah McClellan 05/02/2010, 9:27 pm

    I think I’m convinced that I ought to join my local Toastmasters! I know a few people who belong and they say as many good things as you have here.

    I’ve had to give quite a few speeches or talks or presentations over the years–mostly throughout college, esp. grad school–and I’ve also been inconsistent. I thought I had a stroke with my first speech! Toward the end of my college career, I was only mildly hyperventilating :) It served me well since I went on to teach at some local colleges (I was really nervous at first but couldn’t have done it if I weren’t used to standing in front of a group), also in several manager positions conducting team meetings etc.

    I’m not so nervous anymore but every time I’ve addressed a group I think back to how I should have done this or that better or differently. My biggest fault, that I know of, is going too fast and not taking pauses. I”m sure I could improve in lots of areas.

    Great post. TM sounds like a lot of fun!
    .-= Leah McClellan´s last blog ..Tip # 6 Blog comments =-.

  • Madeleine Kolb 04/22/2010, 8:03 am

    John, Thank you very much for your comment. It sounds as if you also got a lot out of TM. I was interested in your observation that “…Toastmasters helps you to own your speeches and bring so much of yourself to them.” That’s a very important point which I hadn’t really thought about. But that was, certainly, the case for me, especially with a background in technical, regulatory areas.

  • John Sherry 04/22/2010, 7:41 am

    Have to agree wholeheartedly. Toastmasters helped transform me from part confident sometime speaker to full time speaker/blogger happy to put his message out. I aslo believe Toastmasters helps you to own your speeches and bring so much of yourself to them.

    I would fully recommend anyone wanting to improve their speaking, presentations, confidence and people skills to go to their nearest one. You’ll meet great folks, learn new skills, improve old ones and sky rocket what you can achieve.

    A great post which I loved reading and thank you for sharing

  • Madeleine Kolb 01/08/2010, 7:34 pm

    Julie, Thank you for your comment. Being able to do better in an interview is such a help. It really sets you apart from other applicants.

  • Julie 01/08/2010, 9:06 am

    I have benefitted personally and professionally from Toastmasters. I interview better, improved my listening talents, and I organize my thoughts before I speak at home and at social events.

  • Jean Tracy, MSS 09/07/2009, 5:13 pm

    Super job, Madeleine! You’re a real motivator. I love Toastmasters too.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/31/2009, 8:27 pm

    Charley, It’s great how the confidence you gained in TM led to your starting to perform music in coffee houses and bars. What a thrill to experience your own comfort zone getting bigger and bigger and to see it happen to other people too.

  • Charley Forness 08/31/2009, 6:57 pm

    I participated in several Toastmasters meetings a few years ago. There were two groups that started up at work. I will tell you that it was an amazing and helpful experience. The confidence I gained translated to a number of things. I frequently have to facilitate meetings at work with senior management around the world. That would have freaked me out a few years ago. I’ve also used the confidence building to start performing music in coffee shops and bars.

    I can’t think of a more supportive environment for learning how to speak in public.


  • Madeleine Kolb 08/30/2009, 9:45 am

    Jai Kai, I didn’t know that I’d learn so much in TM either. I took my BF, who’d done lots of public speaking in his career, to a meeting of my advanced TM group, and he was amazed.

    What really impressed him was not the great speeches (because he expected great speeches) but the perceptive, detailed, and helpful evaluations.

  • Jai Kai - SharingSuccess.tv 08/30/2009, 7:21 am

    Hi Madeleine
    I didn’t know toastmasters taught you so may things.
    Thank you for sharing this info. I know a lot of successful people and life coaches that have used them. I think everyone can improve their speaking abilities… perhaps i will join.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/27/2009, 12:00 pm

    Thanks for your comment. If you do decide to try TM, you can go to a meeting as a guest and go back as many times as you like. You’ll be invited to join, but there’s absolutely no pressure. Or you can visit different clubs in your area to see which one seems best for you.

    The Fear Factor is huge, so it’s great that you’ve been able to subdue it. I think most speakers never totally overcome fear, but they turn the adrenaline flow from “performance anxiety” into “performance energy” and make it work for them.

    Yes, Point 1 is vital. I usually write a speech at my computer, but then I practice out loud and edit like crazy to make it more conversational. Over time, I’ve gotten better at writing my first draft in a conversational style, but there’s no substitute for hearing the words. Using a tape-recorder also works well.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/27/2009, 11:36 am

    An interesting point about acting. I’ve seen people with acting experience come into TM, and I could see how confident they were right from the start. I’ve taken several acting classes, myself, to improve my public speaking skills and would recommend it to others. Your point about increased self-esteem is also right-on.

  • Karlil 08/27/2009, 10:54 am

    I’ve always have problem doing speeches in front of large audience. I’m always nervous after some time, after a couple of minute. But overtime, after getting used to doing presentation, it somehow comes naturally. Like talking to a friend. But of course its important to come prepared. i especially love point #1. You wont believe how many did that mistakes from what i see during my Uni days. Me being one of them when i first started. Thanks for sharing this great tips.

  • Arvind Devalia 08/27/2009, 8:20 am

    Thanks Madeleine for this excellent guide – I love the way you have broken down the learnings into 7 easy to follow skills.

    A few years ago I was too shy to even get up in front of a small crowd of people. I then did some “mike-running” for a lifecoach with a huge following in London. This meant being in front of the crowd with a microphone and then dashing around anytime someone had a question.

    This allowed me to get over my fear of being in front of a crowd and I have since then done many speaking gigs:-)

    Good luck everyone with your own speaking adventures!

  • Kye 08/26/2009, 5:05 pm

    Madeleine, this post was fantastic. I have a client who has been going to Toastmasters, and I understand so much more about what she’s been doing, now that I’ve read your post.

    You’ve very nearly sold me on trying Toastmasters myself someday. It sounds great.



  • Patrick 08/26/2009, 3:58 pm

    That is a great overview. Although I never visited Toastmasters I have heard pretty good comments about them before.

    My public speaking education was a bit different since I learned acting in school since my first class – and have with some pauses continued to use this. This takes care about stagefright, voice usage etc.

    But using it on business topics I learned from a coach several years ago who specialized in public speaking. It was something I rank highly and would advise anyone to go for such an education – even if you don’t want to become a politician or actor. Just for the raise in self-esteem it was worth it.

  • Madeleine Kolb 08/26/2009, 9:48 am

    Thank you for your comment.

    TM is an international organization, so you should be able to find a club wherever you move. Just go the website at http://www.toastmasters.org, and click on Fnd a location near you at the top of the column on the left.

    My only regret about TM is that I waited so long to join.

  • JS Dixon 08/26/2009, 6:42 am

    Thanks for listing this information. I’ve really been looking at joining toastmasters myself. I’m in the middle of a move right now, but this post has just affirmed everything that I was planning to gain out of it, and than some.