Toastmasters and public speaking

Having finally attended a Toastmasters meeting after nearly 10 years of deliberation, in my first day in Kraków of all places, I carry no regrets.

The international organization focuses around public-speaking development and requires the payment of yearly membership dues to enjoy full privileges of giving scheduled speeches and have access to all member educational resources. A member must choose a particular club as the home base, but is free to switch clubs across the membership lifetime from hundreds around the world.

A person can also attend meetings as a guest, indefinitely, without acquiring a membership, although with limited entitlement, restricted mostly to improv activities and speeches in opportune moments or vacancies. In this manner I attended, and intend as such for the next one or two meetings.

With regard to language, the major cities with Toastmasters presence in non-native English-speaking countries are likely to have English-speaking charters in addition to those in the native tongue. In Berlin I encountered as many as four English-speaking charters, organized at different times and non-consequentially. Here in Kraków I found only one, but organized consistently on a weekly basis, and well promoted on different platforms. This is the one I attended.

Despite the vacation season, a significant number of members and guests arrived, possibly around 15. What most impressed me was the extent to which every miniscule portion of the 1.5 hour meeting was rigorously scheduled to the precise minute on the meeting agenda. And yet, the meeting did not feel intense or rushed, but felt fairly natural and spontaneous. Even so, the meeting culminated not more than several minutes behind schedule.

From memory, the meeting agenda included the introduction, meeting overview, the featured speeches, evaluations, evaluations of evaluators, breaks, voting, improvised table-talks, improvised exercises, etc. A lot of voting and evaluating took place.

Among the members, each had a designated role, predetermined for the particular meeting. The roles, per the above tasks, varied between the overall meeting organization, speakers, evaluators and such.

Another noteworthy highlight is the freedom behind speeches and presentations. From what I’ve observed and inquired, members are free to present speeches on any topic of their fascination, within certain time constraints. It can involve a topic general or specific, technical or loose, scientific or humanitarian, carefully planned or improvised. The presenter, in turn, will be evaluated on all aspects. This reinforcement-learning approach I found extremely beneficial and a major asset in public speaking development.

One speaker was not in a position to deliver the speech on the scheduled topic for technical issues, relying on the personal laptop and some presentation content. Instead, she improvised a meta speech on the given situation she found herself in, on the power of the organization and public-speaking development as a whole, and the background of her evolution as a speaker.

The improvised speech much reinforced my beliefs on the power of effective delivery. She employed such strong body language, eye contact, and expressiveness, that already 10 seconds into the speech I did not much care for the precise topic or lack thereof, but felt entirely bedazzled by the moment. Naturally, she later received some critique, not on the situation of having to adapt to the reality of improvising, but on a handful of technicalities that, if not for the scrupulous eye of the evaluator, I would have entirely dismissed.

The writer Haruki Murakami had commented on why he grants few interviews in the native Japanese, and prefers to give interviews to international audiences in English. His Japanese, I paraphrase, possesses such depth, that he would struggle to refrain from overindulging in texture and eloquence. His rather limited English, on the other hand, grounds his delivery in a sense, emphasizing simplicity and clarity.

The idea holds certain merit and reflects the challenges I experience in the course of those English language deliveries. The amount of vocabulary and phrasing at my disposal is sufficient to prove dangerous. I often overindulge in the prose and neglect the other equally important aspects of a powerful presentation.

The situation is actually more severe. I frequently enough struggle to recall those particular, much-desired literary elements to express an idea at a fine textural detail, which inevitably proves fatal to the presentation quality. I should instead focus on the overall balance of effective public speaking.

My goal with Toastmasters is precisely that, to train a more balanced delivery. I don’t fear or experience much public-speaking anxiety. In fact, I have enough history of speaking in various public settings, although never with enough consistency. Most such speeches I consider of poor quality, an assessment of not only my own self-critique, but that of trusted evaluators. There is much work to be done.