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The Toastmasters Guide for New Members - Make Sense of TM and Improve Your Communication Skills

Updated on May 4, 2015
Toastmasters helps with public speaking, but can be confusing for new members.
Toastmasters helps with public speaking, but can be confusing for new members. | Source

What is Toastmasters?

Toastmasters International is a worldwide, non-profit organization dedicated to helping people become more confident and to learn effective communication skills. Founded by Ralph C. Smedley in the United States in 1924, it's since grown to thousands of member clubs across the globe.

Toastmasters is based on the idea of learning from each other; there is no one trainer or teacher in charge of meetings. Instead, each meeting is lead by a Toastmaster who serves as an emcee, guiding people through the agenda and introducing the different role takers.

How it Works

The flow of a TM meeting varies depending on the club, but the most important sections consist of impromptu speaking, prepared speeches, and speech and meeting evaluations. Most clubs I personally attended as a guest or member followed that particular pattern.

I'll go into more detail about Toastmasters roles later in the article, but in brief:

How Meetings Are Run

The impromptu speaking session (Table Topics), is lead by a Table Topics Master, who asks the audience questions that require a 1 or 2 minute answer without any preparation. Audience members can volunteer themselves, or be chosen to speak. The goal here is to practice your off the cuff speaking skills.

The prepared speech session has several TM club members give prepared speeches, each with different goals and times. Speakers give their presentations based on the Toastmasters Manuals, which have different projects covering aspects of public speaking. For example, the Competent Communication manual focuses on the basics of public speaking, like body language and vocal variety.

Finally we have the evaluation session. This is where assigned speech evaluators comment on the prepared speeches; giving praise and constructive criticism as necessary. There is a big focus on being diplomatic and sparing the speaker's feelings in Toastmasters, which we'll get to later on. The General Evaluator leads the speech evaluators and later gives his or her own comments about how the meeting went.

Again, things are going to play out different depending on the club - but the above are the basics of any Toastmasters meeting.

About Leadership Roles

Toastmasters is just as much about leadership as it is public speaking. Each Toastmasters group is run by several Club Officers who handle various aspects of club business: everything from members' educational progress, to advertising, to membership.

Toastmasters Manual Credit

Another important aspect of TM are the manuals, where members write down evaluations for each other, and track their progress. Completing manuals awards members with certain titles; for example, complete your Competent Communicator Manual (first 10 speeches) and you will earn your CC Award. The same goes with the Competent Leadership manual that tracks leadership.

Once you complete your basic speeches, you can branch out to Advanced Manuals covering different topics and themes; for example, humorous speaking or public relations. Leadership manuals follow a more rigid path.

When a Toastmasters member fulfills certain requirements, they can be awarded with the title Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest recognition a member can get. Some dedicated TM members don't stop there and go through the whole process again after they become DTMs!


Tips for TM Newcomers

Visit Several Clubs as a Guest before Committing to Membership

Before we go any further about the technical details of club meetings, I'd like to advise newcomers to "shop around" when they are first considering joining. This is because Toastmasters is so large and vast, that each club has its own unique identity, club culture, and processes.

Most groups are warm and inviting, so you'll never have to worry about feeling unwelcome. Still, it's important to find a TM club that suits your personality and needs.

If you are someone who values the social side of things as well as learning about public speaking, choose a club with an energetic atmosphere where members spend time with each other outside of the meetings. If you are busy or just value the learning process above all else, seek a more serious minded TM Club - perhaps a lunchtime meeting in your company if they have one. Practical concerns like schedule and location are also important.

You are more likely to learn in an environment you feel is suited for you, so choose wisely!

Seek Out Clubs with Experienced Members

Veteran public speakers are much better sources of information and experience than inexperienced ones. Of course, that's not to dismiss the passion and energy that new Toastmasters members can bring - only that it is much easier to learn from someone who is familiar with the program. Clubs with mostly new members tend to have a "blind leading the blind" quality about them - everyone is positive and supportive, but members don't improve their presentation skills nearly as much.

Go At Your Own Pace and Set Your Own Goals

The beauty of Toastmasters is its flexibility; you can go as slow or fast as you want, and accomplish only what you want to. There are plenty of members who stop after their first 10 speeches, feeling satisfied with what they've learned from the program. Others make it all the way to DTM, participate in speech contests, and take on several leadership roles.

It's all up to you just how far you want to take things - don't feel the pressure to go further than you want!

Brief Explanation of TM Meeting Roles

(Note that these titles may be slightly different depending on the club)

Toastmaster - Serves as emcee and guides the meeting.

Topics Master - Asks impromptu questions to the audience, to be answered in 1 to 2 minutes.

Table Topics Speaker - Anyone who answers the Topics Master's questions.

Ah-Counter - Counts the number of unnecessary sounds by every participant in a meeting - uh, um, you know, and so on.

Timer - Times certain meeting participants, such as the speakers, table topics speakers, and evaluators. Going over time can affect someone's eligibility for voting if the club has that practice.

Grammarian - Comments on the use of language throughout the meeting, and (optionally) gives a word of the day for members and guests to use.

Speaker - Gives a prepared speech based on Toastmasters Manual objectives

Evaluator - Evaluates those who gave prepared speeches.

General Evaluator - Leads and introduces the Evaluators, and gives their own constructive criticism on the meeting in general.

Brief Explanation of TM Club Officer Roles

Toastmasters Club Officers serve as the leaders and organizers of a TM group.

President - The head organizer of a club. Also opens each meeting and introduces the Toastmaster of the day.

Vice President of Education - In charge of keeping track of member's progress when it comes to improving their public speaking and leadership skills. Being a VP of Education is time consuming and requires excellent organizational skills.

Vice President of Membership - In charge of communication with current club members, and attracting new ones. Also in charge of a club's mentoring program, if they have it.

Vice President of Public Relations - In charge of PR and advertising for the club.

Secretary - Keeps track of the meeting minutes.

Treasurer - In charge of the club's finances.

Sergeant at Arms - Responsible for the club's materials and setting up the room before each meeting.

Immediate Past President - Club Officer terms are 6 months each. After a President completes his or her term, they become listed as "Immediate Past President" in their Club Officer list, and it's not uncommon for them to help out in an advisory role for new leaders.

Tips for Your First Toastmasters Speeches

The Icebreaker

1. Choose one or two things about yourself and form a coherent story with your speech (don't just list too many random facts about yourself).

2. Don't worry about things like body language or the technical aspects of public speaking just yet - the Icebreaker is just a warm-up!

Organize Your Speech

1. Writing a speech - at least for beginners - is not all that different from writing an essay. Think back to your English classes for some ideas of how to structure your speech.

2. Be mindful of having a logical order, smooth flow, and using transition words when appropriate.

Get to the Point

1. Keep your speech focused on one or two points.

2. This is an excellent opportunity to practice editing your work and being more mindful of time limits.

3. Think about your general purpose and specific purpose. (For example, the general purpose of a speech might be to entertain. The specific purpose might be something like tell an amusing story about my childhood).

How to Say It

1. Think of words and expressions that convey the appropriate tone for your speech.

2. Expand on what you learned from the previous project - be clear and concise.

Vocal Variety

1. Use a clear, but not too loud, voice so people in the back of the audience can hear you.

2. Try to avoid caffeine and other beverages that dry your throat.

3. Use character voices when appropriate - when giving a humorous speech for example.

4. Vocal variety isn't just about using your voice - be mindful of when to pause for dramatic effect (if it is appropriate for your speech).

Research Your Topic

1. Choose a topic that you're interested in and that your audience can relate to.

2. Cite your sources but don't get too bogged down in them, the point is to convey information clearly to other members. Save your citations for the end of the speech if you have them.

3. When appropriate, don't forget the emotional element of your speech. If you are giving a presentation about global warming, for example, don't just use stats and information - perhaps show some pictures of its effects.

4. Visual Aids is the next project, but given the nature of this project it'd be a good idea to get some PPT practice in here too.

Get Comfortable With Visual Aids

1. Try to use pictures rather than text-filled Death by Powerpoint style presentations.

2. Remember the visuals aid your speech, they are not the speech itself.

3. Be careful not to look at the screen too much! Focus on your audience instead.

4. Have a backup plan in case your club's screen and projector aren't working.

Persuade With Power

1. Much like with other speeches, use a suitable mix of logic, facts, and emotional appeal.

2. Consider the audience's knowledge of, and attitude towards, your subject matter, and present accordingly.

Inspire Your Audience

1. This project is naturally more focused on emotional appeal than previous ones - but don't forget the role of logic and facts in your speech as well.

2. This is an excellent place to start being mindful of skills like storytelling, which will show up in advanced manuals.

3. As much as possible, think back to what you've learned up to now - but focus more on sincerity and passion rather than technical skill.

Tips for Speech Evaluations

When you give your first speech evaluation, don't worry if you don't have much public speaking experience yet. More than becoming a great speaker, one of the goals of Toastmasters is to build up people's confidence.

This means that even if it's your first time evaluating, being diplomatic and supportive will go a long way. Something you will probably hear of in TM meetings is the sandwich structure. Basically, start off with what the speaker did well, then talk about some things they can improve. After some constructive criticism, end your evaluation on a positive note.

The more experience you have with Toastmasters, the easier evaluation will be. Evaluation is one area where listening and learning from experienced members will help a lot - take note of the kinds of evaluations they give, their criticisms, and how they deliver them.

More About Toastmasters

The following are a list of terms and other aspects of Toastmasters that are nice to know, even if a new member does not need to worry about them too much right away. Knowing some of these things can make navigating your new Toastmasters home much smoother, however!

Area - An "Area" is a group of around 3 to 5 Toastmasters clubs at the local level.

Division - A grouping of several Toastmasters Areas.

District - The next organizational level; Districts are made up of 60 clubs. Places that do not have 60 clubs do not have the benefits of being a District, which include being able to send speech contest winners to the International stage. A country may have only one, or several districts, depending on its size.

Region - A group of Toastmasters Districts. There are currently 14 Districts worldwide, and most of them are in North America.

Speech Contests Twice a year Toastmasters International has speech contest seasons. Speech contests start at individual clubs, then on to Area and District levels. Speech contests may have certain themes; for example humorous speech contests, tall tales, or evaluation and Table Topics contests.

Conventions Districts will hold two conventions each year. Conventions are where speech contests take place; they also have several education sessions given by experienced Toastmasters and public speakers.

Mentoring Mentoring is a process in which veterans guide mentees through their first six speeches. This is to help speed up the learning process and to give new members confidence.

How was your first experience with Toastmasters?

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