Topic: My First Toastmasters Meeting

Day 75

Hello, blog readers and guests,

Today I attended my first Toastmasters International meeting. They're essentially a public speaking practice and leadership practice club. I don't know whether I plan to join, but I wanted to check out a few meetings and give it a try. There's one in my neighborhood and one at my workplace (I work for an organization the size of a small town), and I might try them both, but this one was at work. I had heard about Toastmasters in various places, and I had kind of assumed they are only for people who are terrified of public speaking, but the name kept coming up in books and articles I read related to professional development. I am comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, but there's always room for improvement. I know I feel better speaking about an organization I work with or on that organization's behalf (like when I'm a tour guide) than speaking about myself or my own projects, for example. So, I decided to give it a try.

I was a little late to the meeting, which was held in a very small auditorium, and people were doing that thing where everyone sits on the end of a row. My options were to ask someone to let me through, or sit in front, and someone was already in the middle of the presentation, so I snuck up to the front. Someone noticed me come in and passed me an agenda, which I was grateful for, because I would have been very lost without it. The present speaker was giving a short talk on the word "epic," as a word of the day. After him the meeting's "toastmaster" introduced what was happening next. I noticed that she shook hands with each speaker before and after their talk. The meeting included a "thought of the day," and then a few short presentations by members, with comments from other members who had been designated as "evaluators." This particular meeting was fairly geared towards newcomers, since this particular group is trying to recruit new members. One of the presentations was by the club president, and it was a sales pitch all about Toastmasters.

When I say sales pitch, I mean it. The way that Toastmasters is structured, members work their way through assignments in manuals, each assignment teaching you how to do a specific type of presentation. This speech was an "Advanced manual 'Specialty Speeches,' 'Sell a Product'" speech. I found it a little heavy-handed, but it gave me useful information about what joining Toastmasters is like, which I hadn't found in a cursory exploration of their website. For one thing, I learned that it costs $6 per month, paid twice a year, with a $20 new members fee -- so it would be $46 to join. I later learned that members get a monthly magazine, which helps explain the cost, but other than development of the manual (which is a PDF, not printed) I'm not sure what the money goes to.

Image is of a three-dimensional stick figure style cartoon holding a megaphone. The text says, "talk up Toastmasters"
I went to look up "is Toastmasters a nonprofit" and Google's suggested search was "is Toastmasters a cult." Um? Naturally, I was curious and clicked on a few articles, and basically found that some people find the program and the members overzealous, and the program oddly rigid. I can completely see that, from what I experienced in one meeting, and I also don't think it's anywhere near a cult. Ask me again in a year if the $46 they ask of me has turned into $4,600, I guess. (Most to all of the people calling it a cult are joking.) The fact that the meeting ends with a "grammarian report" in which each speaker gets told how many ums, so...s, etc. they used, and a timekeeper report in which each speaker gets told how many of their allotted minutes and seconds they used did feel a little strange to me. The whole thing kind of reminded me of a scouting organization, actually, with the formulaic, vaguely militaristic setup. Then, I read the magazine. I really love how excited everyone is to be a part of Toastmasters -- in the meeting I attended, it was a mix of native speakers and English learners, young and old -- but the magazine reads very much like pop self-help. The cover article is about a man who started 164 Toastmasters clubs, and despite the fact that the magazine is for existing members, most of the articles seem to be about how Toastmasters changes lives. That's when I identified the undercurrent that struck me in all of the short speeches. They're self-help enthusiasts.

After my first meeting, my conclusion is that this is probably not my genre. There's nothing wrong with self-help (when it's not a moneymaking scam) but it's not usually my cup of tea. I am going to attend a few more meetings to see if it grows on me, but I am not sure I'll take the plunge.