Toastmasters Take Two

In an earlier post, I wrote about my first experience with Toastmasters, the international public speaking club, and I was pretty sure it wasn't for me. I had decided that Toastmasters just isn't my genre – it felt both too corporate and too self-help-y, in the sense of mass-market self-help books, for my taste. I was also surprised at the fact that they wanted $40 from me right away if I wanted to join, which isn't a prohibitive cost for me, but was a bit off-putting. However, I really like the idea of people getting together to practice public speaking. I loved the 4-H public speaking program as a kid, and I like the idea that people of all speaking levels, not just beginners, can improve. So, I tried two more ways of exploring what Toastmasters has to offer: I checked out one of their books from the library, and I tried a different Toastmasters club.

The cover of Toastmasters International Guide to Successful Speaking, which includes an image of hands clapping and the Toastmasters logo.I just can't help turning this blog into a book review blog, can I? The book I tried was “The Toastmasters International Guide to Successful Speaking” by Jeff Slutsky and Michael Aun. It had a couple of really valuable tips, but overall it was even more aggressively not my thing than my first meeting had been. The chapter on audience participation, in particular, was very helpful and got me thinking about different ideas I could use in conference presentations and similar settings. Many of their recommendations were tried and true, such as polling your audience, but they described the pros and cons, and potential pitfalls and how to recover from a snag. Another tip I wrote down to remember was to draw an illustration on a flip chart while presenting, but to do it lightly in pencil before the presentation, so that you can draw quickly and clearly when in front of people. Despite the helpful tips, a lot of this book is just aimed at a different audience, one more invested in the business world and expecting to speak in order to sell a product or service rather than to share information with colleagues. On top of that, the book gives some advice that I consider corporate to the point of sleaziness, or even silliness, such as mailing invitations to your seminar dressed up to make people think they are wedding invitations. Because of this book, I dragged my feet in trying another Toastmasters meeting, but since I walk by their sign on my way home, I eventually gave it a shot.

I accidentally arrived late at my first Toastmasters meeting, the one near my workplace, so I don't know how they greet new people before the meeting. The second meeting I tried was near my own neighborhood, although I didn't see any familiar faces in the room. I was pleased with how newcomer-friendly they were at first, as several people greeted me. By the fifth person to introduce themselves, though, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. The way the meeting worked offered two opportunities for brand-new folks to be involved: we were very briefly called up to the stage and interviewed (we were warned ahead of time, and they gave us a chance to opt out!). Telling the audience my name, where I'm from, and my favorite part of Boston made me feel like a contestant on a fairly awkward game show, but it was nice to be included. Newcomers were also welcome to join in the impromptu speeches section of the evening.

While this meeting was probably even more structured than my first meeting, I didn't mind it. Additional roles they used included the "projection master" who sat in the back and reported back to people on whether they were loud enough. The people in the room came from all over, a mix of locals and people who had recently moved from other countries, and seemed to have a variety of backgrounds and interests. I still haven't gotten my hands on a copy of the speech handbook they use, which seems to be only for paying members and isn't in my library system, but the prepared speeches all felt a little formulaic. I guess that may be part of the point, as it's easier to score people on technique if they stick to the fundamentals of speechmaking. It may have been the humid day and the fact that my clothes were sticking to the bare wooden pew of the church hosting the meeting, but I found that each prepared speech seemed to be aiming for universal appeal, which made them feel 
A tarot card in mostly yellows and oranges, portraying the Devil as a winged satyr with a human head, torso, and penis.
The audience didn't get to see the
cards, but it may have been from a
deck like this one. 
bland and watered-down. 

On the other hand, the impromptu speeches were great. The club member providing prompts for this week had brought in a deck of Tarot cards with a Renaissance art theme, and I got to see people's real selves and hear about their lives as they created two-minute speeches on the first things that came to mind when they drew two cards. The first person to speech was a woman with a Southern accent, who said, "Well, one of my cards is the devil, who I can relate to right now because I get cranky in hot weather... oh my! And he's exposed!" The group laughed along with her. I got the impression that this group is a neighborly bunch. They are all pretty different, but they get together and share this bit of their lives. They do a lot of laughing, and often go out to a local restaurant after the meeting.

I'm still not sure that this group is for me. They meet every week, and my life is very busy and full of commitments. I have to think very carefully about taking another regular thing on, and for me, right now, this doesn't make the cut. But, despite not instantly feeling like this is the place for me, people's applause for one another felt genuine, and I have to say that I left the meeting feeling happy.