By Eric Nacul
John is addressing a group of his peers on how to offer better customer service, when one of his colleagues starts periodically tapping the chrome plunger of a service bell. Undaunted, he continues and is delivering what he considers the talkÂs most powerful point when his audience cuts him off mid-sentence with clapping.
Far from being rude, however, the group is helping John become a more effective communicator at one of the more than 13,500 nonprofit Toastmasters International clubs worldwide. And with more than 40 percent of those clubs sponsored by corporate giants like State Farm, Bank of America, IBM, Boeing and a host of government agencies, Toastmaster membership might well be one of the best tools for success.
Toastmasters traces its roots to 1903 when Ralph Smedley, education director of a YMCA in Bloomington, IL, saw a need for speech training there. Smedley formed the first permanent club in Santa Ana, CA, in 1924.
Meetings are typically held weekly and aim to enhance communication skills as well as listening, evaluation, interpersonal and leadership skills. Membership also offers great networking opportunities. While they vary from club to club, dues and fees typically run about $200 annually.
Toastmasters is the epitome of learning by doing. While each club does have officers, the duties of running a meeting as Toastmaster of the Day rotates from member to member. The various responsibilities of a meeting rotate as well. Key responsibilities include:
- The Ah Counter counts the times a speaker uses Âah,Â ÂandÂ and other filler words and uses a bell, clicker or other audible device to alert the speaker each time one is used.
- The Grammarian keeps track of grammar mistakes, awkward sentence structure, pronunciation and other errors.
- The Time Keeper typically uses an electronic timer to track a speechÂs time and warns speakers at pre-determined points.
- An Evaluator is assigned each of the meetings speakers to note what the speaker did well and what he or she can improve upon.
Toastmasters meetings usually run 60-90 minutes. An hour-long meeting might include three speakers giving 5-7 minute speeches as well as three or four Table Topic speakers of 1-2 minutes each.
While those giving longer speeches typically know well in advance and can write and prepare for their speech, Table Topic speakers have no idea of what their topic will be and have no time to prepare. The Table Topics Master chooses a topic ranging from the silly to the profound and then chooses a member at random to speak on it. Next he chooses another topic and another member and then another. Each member has the time it takes to stand to prepare.
The longer speeches are typically prepared in advance, with beginning Toastmasters working through the Competent Communicator manual, a guide on how to organize, research and write a speech as well as lessons on body language and vocal tone in delivering a speeh. Also in the manual is information on effectively giving various types of talks such as a persuasive speech, an inspirational speech, an entertaining speech, etc.
Members who aspire to greater oratory heights also have a number of advanced levels they can achieve. Periodic speech contests are held as well with advancement to local, regional and national levels possible.
But being a better speaker is only part of being a better communicator and Toastmasters also helps hone its members listening and critiquing skills. Evaluators are assigned to each speaker to watch, listen and note what the speaker does well and what needs improvement. Constructive evaluations are given with evaluators first noting what was done well and then giving areas in which the speaker can grow.
Meetings themselves are structured so that members become proficient in conducting efficient and effective meetings. Responsibilities for conducting meetings rotates among members as do other meeting responsibilities in addition to those already mentioned. ThereÂs also a General Evaluator who observes and reports on the overall quality of the meeting.
For most members, improvement in their communication skills is fairly quick. And improvements in confidence, quick thinking, listening and leadership well serve anyone wanting to succeed. To learn more about Toastmasters, visit toastmasters.org.