by Theodore May

What about Toastmasters?

Sep 30, 2019
IT LeadershipIT Skills

If Toastmasters provides you with a space and ready audience for the regular practice of the basic tenets of business presentation, great. But remember why you are there.

audience listens to speaker lecture at a conference presentation
Credit: toxawww / Getty Images

One of the questions I get asked all the time is, “What about Toastmasters?”  Students and managers that I work with want to know if I think they should join Toastmasters.

Toastmasters International offers anyone who joins one of their local affiliates the opportunity to “practice public speaking, improve your communication and build leadership skills.” They invite prospective members to “break barriers, not your budget.”

Both of these assertions might cause me a moment’s hesitation. First, is the implied slight that other methods of learning – mine included – are prohibitively expensive. And I could easily counter, “In life, you tend to get what you pay for.”  My method is a bargain. Toastmasters also seems to suggest that improving public speaking, communication and leadership are three discrete benefits of membership. In my view, when it comes to a business presentation, they are inseparable. Public speaking is a communication skill that requires leadership. Sustained leadership requires effective communication and public speaking skills. Etc.

But when asked, I generally do not hesitate to answer, “Sure.”

Toastmasters can be a good thing

I think any opportunity to practice speaking in front of an audience can be good; so long as you always remember to:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Open your mouth when you speak
  • Speak directly to individual members of the audience

If Toastmasters provides you with a space and ready audience for the regular practice of these three basic things, then great. If it encourages you to practice, that’s good.

If nothing else, you’ll quickly realize that as long as you remember to breath nothing catastrophic is going to happen and you can begin to overcome presentation panic. You’re not going to die. Mastery begins with the ability to separate and understand the relationship between nerves and the physical energy required to sustain every good presentation/story/toast. That only comes with experience.

Toastmasters can also provide you with a supportive audience and sometimes helpful feedback. (The reason I say “sometimes” will become clear in a minute.)  It’s also important to appreciate the role audiences can play in providing feedback when they are active participants in the creation of a presentation.

This is all good.

But remember…

I always caution any student or client that asks about Toastmasters not to confuse what they offer generally with business presentation skills specifically. When I work with executives and companies, we are exclusively and relentlessly focused on the business presentation. A business presentation is not Public Speaking as Toastmasters and others might have you understand it. So, my dictum, “take what you can use and disregard the rest,” should be rigorously applied when you attempt to apply what you experience at a Toastmasters’ meeting to a business presentation. The feedback you get at Toastmasters will “sometimes” be helpful. But it can also be harmful if you are not careful.

The challenge begins with the application of the term Public Speaking. I avoid using this term entirely when referring to a business presentation. At the highest level, a business presentation may be seen as a form of public speaking but that can be misleading. Public Speaking implies that what you are saying is suitable for general audiences. The business presentation is not intended for any and all audiences. Business presentations address specific audiences for specific purposes. What we do is less public speaking and more speaking to business audiences about business. We are never shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Things to watch out for…

There will always be exceptions to the following, but here are a few things to look out for when turning to a local Toastmasters’ club for guidance with business presentations. Be careful not to:

  • Place a premium on entertaining the audience. That is not our objective. In business, (during regular business hours,) we’re not there to entertain audiences. Business presentations have serious purpose and intent.
  • Focus on how engaging you are as a presenter. The real question for business presenters is, how effectively are you engaging the audience?
  • Place too much emphasis on performing. In business, it’s not about you, the presenter, and your skills as a performer. It’s about your content. And your content is not your story. It’s about insight, ideas and objectives pertaining to business stewardship, challenges and opportunities.
  • Get too cute. Toastmaster stories are often injected with a little Aesop’s Fables-type moralizing. In business, our primary mission is to profoundly change the way audiences think about a challenge related to their work, and then move them to take responsive action. That is a much bigger task than simply dropping well-worn epigrams.
  • Think of the ultimate goal as winning a competition. Winning a Toastmasters’ competition does not mean you will be able to deliver a successful business presentation. It may mean you will be able to engage, entertain and hold the attention of most audience members for a minute or two. Nothing more.

An undue emphasis on performance can encourage “performing.”  In business, there are fundamental principles of performance at work, but we are not interested in performing for performing’s sake.

Telling personal (and purposefully humorous) stories can easily end up looking and sounding a lot like open mic night at the local comedy club. Good comics spend years crafting their routines, mining and refining original content. They are all about entertainment and performing. But when the presenter is not a skilled professional comic, the jokes tend to be obvious and clichéd. The ensuing laughs are cheap. You risk looking and sounding less like professional executive and more like an amateur actor.

Don’t overact

Performing is a trap. Executives are sometimes encouraged to take an acting class. Early in my career, I spent literally years in the best acting classes available and I don’t recommend this for executives. Acting is about inhabiting alternative realities. In business, we are concerned with present realities. An Improv class can be useful, but more for content ideation, development and meeting management than presentation performance.

So, go to Toastmasters. But remember why you are there. And I hope you will quickly begin to want more than they can offer specific to the development of business presentation skills. Toastmasters is something else. You will realize that this is not the complete answer to delivering a killer business presentation – that ultimately you get what you pay for.

Go. And take what you can use, but then disregard the rest.