A typical Toastmasters meeting
Today I’d like to share with you what a typical Toastmasters meeting is like. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Toastmasters is a network of worldwide clubs in which members help each other become better public speakers and leaders. Tis nice.
My club in New Orleans meets every Monday (6pm) at Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue. The meeting typically lasts about 90 minutes. Each meeting has distinct sections and members typically rotate between different roles each week. I’ll describe a few of them here. Note that some clubs have slightly different roles and formats, so this information may not be entirely accurate for everyone.
The Toastmaster runs the show. He picks the theme of the meeting in advance, and has several opportunities to speak on it throughout. I’ve acted as Toastmaster twice for my club and have used themes of “Self-Discipline” and “How to be More Effective.” The Toastmaster also introduces various other members in their roles throughout the meeting.
Table Topics Master
It’s always fun to be the Table Topics Master. When in this role, you get to stand at the lectern and pick people from the audience to give short, impromptu speeches. You’ll usually have a list of questions/topics prepared in advance. For example, if I’m the Table Topics Master, I might say: “Last night I had a dream about a giraffe sitting on roof singing Eye of the Tiger in Spanish. Mary, tell us about a strange dream you’ve had recently.” Mary will then have to stand and try to give a confident, well-spoken response lasting at least one minute.
We usually have three featured speakers at each meeting. These folks will have prepared 5-10 minute speeches on just about any topic. Each member does receive speech manuals to work through, and so each speech typically has a focus, be it body language, vocal variety, entertainment value, etc. But within those frameworks, you can speak about anything at all. The first speech any member gives is an Icebreaker, where they simply introduce themselves to the other members, say who they are and what they’re about.
Each speaker has an evaluator. An evaluator will stand up for 2-3 minutes near the end of the meeting and deliver feedback on the speaker she was assigned to. There are many different styles of evaluation, but the goal is always the same: help the speaker improve. An evaluator will often say what she liked about the speech, and then suggest some areas for improvement.
The General Evaluator leads the evaluation team, introducing them at the beginning of each meeting and calling on them for reports at the end. She wraps up by giving her general thoughts on the meeting, noting anything remarkable and offering any suggestions to improve future meetings.
We end the meeting with a short joke or anecdote from the Story Master. At our club, it’s typically the same person who performs this role every week, and he never fails to get a laugh.
The club President opens and closes the meeting, and makes any official announcements. We elect a new president every year, and that person is responsible for the proper running of the club.
At each meeting we also have people act as the following:
- Timer – keeps track of how long everyone speaks for and works the light signal so speakers know when to finish.
- Grammarian – notes interesting and inappropriate uses of grammar.
- Ah Counter – keeps track of any filler words (ah, um, you know, etc.) used by the speakers.
- Ballot Counter – we vote for best Speaker, best Evaluator and best Table Topics participant at each meeting. The Ballot Counter gathers the ballots and counts up the votes.
What Toastmasters can do for you
Now that you’re familiar with a typical Toastmasters meeting, I’d like to describe some of the benefits I’ve gotten from being a member. I decided to sign up about 18 months ago for three main reasons:
- I wanted to minimize my fear of public speaking and become better at it.
- I wanted to learn how to organize thoughts in my head better and faster (Table Topics is great for this).
- I wanted to meet more people interested in improving themselves.
I’ve gotten all that and more out of Toastmasters. I’m no longer terrified of getting up to speak in front of people. Some fear still lingers, but it’s more like a nervous excitement now, not complete dread. I’ve definitely improved as a speaker over the 18 months. In fact, I just recently won the club and area contests for Table Topics and Humorous Speech. (Wish me luck as I compete in the division contest this Thursday!)
Toastmasters has definitely helped me think better on my feet and express my thoughts coherently. Before I joined I would often try to make a point while talking to someone, only to go off on a tangent and forget the point I was trying to make. That doesn’t happen to me anymore.
I’ve also met lots of great people in my club and division. There are many distinct characters, but everyone seems to have at least this much in common: they want to better themselves, and they want to help others better themselves.
A few other things I’ve learned from Toastmasters:
Giving regular evaluations has helped me get better at providing useful feedback. Evaluations in Toastmasters are always constructive. Nobody will stand up there and shake their head at you. As an evaluator, you first and foremost focus on what the speaker did well and congratulate them on their progress, while throwing in some tips for further improvement. That’s not to say everybody is trying to be overly-nice and avoid hurt feelings. It will be made clear to you where your weaknesses are and how you can improve them, but it’s all done in a supportive way so you never feel you have to go it alone.
Do it your way
There’s no “right way” to do something. There are a million different ways to run a meeting, deliver a speech or give an evaluation. Some members get flustered when someone deviates from the traditional meeting format (and I’ve been one of those members), but it’s always been the most fun when someone turns the meeting on its head and comes at it from a different angle.
Highs follow lows
You’ve heard the saying, “night is darkest just before the dawn.” I’ve found this to be true in Toastmasters, and I’m sure it’s applicable to many other areas of personal development. My biggest growth spurts as a public speaker have all come right after significant low points. For example, one of the best evaluations I ever gave came a week after the worst. It’s good to keep this in mind when you find yourself struggling. You’re probably not far from a breakthrough. You just have to keep going.
So that’s Toastmasters. Go along to a local club as a guest and see for yourself. If you decide to become a member, it will cost you a $20 sign-up fee and $27 every six months beyond that. For the value you receive in return, that’s the steal of the century.
If you want to check out some speeches I’ve given at my club, you’ll find video included with these posts: