Want to grow your communication and leadership skills? Consider Toastmasters!
by Gary Lee Webb, DTM
Do you have trouble getting through a job interview? Are you uncomfortable speaking in front of people you do not know? Would you like to be better at responding to a surprise question? Or better at marshalling your thoughts and presenting your ideas? Perhaps you have a job, but wish to move up to a supervisory position? Or perhaps, you just wish to be a better speaker/presenter at church, work, or other organizations?
If any of these apply to you, Toastmasters International can help. Toastmasters is an international non-profit organization. We are 300,000 people helping people to learn how to communicate better, and we have been doing it for 90 years. Toastmasters offers participants a way to practice communication skills in a supportive environment, a way to meet more experienced speakers and see them in action, and a way to expand one’s horizons across the world. We are a self-paced program, with helpful, individual mentors, usually divided into chapters of roughly 20 people, generally meeting weekly or bi-weekly (see directions below on how to get info on local chapters). There is high level training available for those who want it,
Toastmasters provides a very friendly environment in which beginners can learn, in front of a non-critical audience, that speaking is not hard. Participants go on to learn basic presentation skills, and, as they improve, gain the confidence that they are capable and even excellent speakers. They can either participate in a group (Speechcraft) or learn at their own pace (with a mentor); either way they will get positive criticism, aimed at helping them improve. As they practice, they will periodically see more experienced presenters (at club, contest, or conference), which may help guide their steps to being a better presenter. Eventually, participants discover that it does not matter whether the audience is friendly or not – they know they speak well.
At the same time they are learning public speaking skills, participants are also learning how to handle those surprise questions, learning to marshal their thoughts, and how to respond well. This is a valuable skill particularly in an interview. Interviewers often resort to surprise questions, to see how the applicant responds. A sage response after brief thought could be the key to getting the job.
Toastmasters also develops leadership skills: listening, evaluating, organizing your thoughts, speaking in a way that you are believed, persuasive, or inspirational…in short, getting your message across and convincing people of its wisdom…these skills are a strong foundation for any leader. Participants also learn useful skills like organizing and running a meeting well, or putting together and managing a major project. I know people who used their new skills to get that supervisor position they wanted.
This is our mission statement: “We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.” I believe we do it very well indeed: I have seen people become great speakers, authors, and leaders. It is a deep and wide program, with many options for learning and participation.
Members who wish to hold the highest honors demonstrate what they have learned by teaching others. As participants grow in the program they have opportunities to teach new speakers in Speechcraft, teach teenagers in Youth Leadership, teach management skills, and to teach leaders or trainers, as well as many other options. Not all of these are required, but I have done several to my benefit. I can proudly say I am a Distinguished ToastMaster (DTM), signifying I have delved deeply into the program, learning both communication and leadership.
What makes Toastmasters especially valuable is not just the practice, but the immediate feedback and the good role models. The manuals not only train the speaker, they guide the evaluator in what to look for, so that he may better tell the speaker how to improve. And after 90 years of improvement, the manuals are very good.
Moreover, the member will see better speakers to emulate. If the ones in his or her chapter are not good enough, there are other chapters to visit. Twice per year, there is a series of contests, in which members can compete against members from other chapters. The contest winners compete across larger regions, and then across the state. The international contest climaxes with the winner from each of the almost 100 districts world-wide competing in semi- and world finals. Last year (2014), I saw D.J. Swinyar win in the District 25 contest and get flown to Malaysia for the 2014 finals. Contests are optional, only about 10% of members compete, but those who are interested can learn, just by watching. There are also many other optional training opportunities.
In short, Toastmasters is a unique opportunity to improve oneself: as a speaker, as a leader, and in many other ways. The skills are valuable, and so are the friendships. We generally do our best to help each other out, and we tend to be willing to meet and network across the globe. I have become acquainted with astronauts, top businessmen, world champions, and great authors; I personally know toastmasters in three continents. The basic cost is $72 per year (prorated for a partial year); individual chapters may add local dues (there are seven chapters in the Waco area). And there is a $20 initial fee for a new member (pays for the initial manuals). That is incredibly cheap compared to other options for this kind of development. Toastmasters is a very cost-effective way to learn.
I hope you will consider coming and visiting one of our chapters – guests are always welcome. If you like what you see, if you think it will help you grow into a more capable person, I hope you will consider joining. For details of when and where we meet, you can e-mail me at GaryLeeWebb@D25Toastmasters.org or check out the international web site, www.toastmasters.org, and put in your zip code after clicking “Find a Club” on the top bar.
Gary Lee Webb is a 17-year resident of Waco. He recently completed a successful year as a president’s distinguished Division Governor for Toastmasters International, guiding 29 central Texas chapters. His credits include film chairman for the 1982 West Coast Science Fiction Convention, over 360 public speeches, assisting at both high school and adult speech contests, and over 40 publications (14 fiction). He is 59, married 38 years, with 4 daughters.
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