I’m a big fan of conquering my weaknesses and fears. I like to identify what they are, finding out why I’m afraid of them, and then do whatever it takes to overcome them.

There’s one fear I’m working on these days is the fear that’s often cited in surveys as the biggest fear of all for most people: the fear of public speaking. A few years ago, I did a quick online search to find a Toastmasters club near me, and I’m happy to report that I found a great little club in downtown Colorado Springs (where I work) called, simple enough: Downtown Toastmasters. I joined in late 2011 and have been a member ever since.

Sometimes when I meet new people, if they know that I’m in Toastmasters, they’ll ask me what it’s like, what we do, and whether they should join. So here’s a simple overview of those three things, as simply as I can put them. The best way to find out for yourself is definitely to just come visit a meeting, but, if you’re looking for more info, here are some helpful hints.

What is Toastmasters?

Toastmasters is, simply put, an international organization that has clubs all over the world where people of all ages, professions, backgrounds, and skill level get together once per week to meet and pursue opportunities to get better at public speaking. Easy enough?

What happens at a Toastmasters meeting?

You know what’s great about this question? The answer to this is also very simple: no matter where you are in the world, the basic format and agenda of a Toastmasters meeting is very much the same. While each club has its own flavor to it, the process is so similar that you would feel comfortable enough walking into any Toastmasters meeting, anywhere in the world, and pretty much know what to expect.

Here’s a sample Toastmasters meeting agenda:

  1. Call to Order: after socializing for a few minutes (if you show up early), the club President  calls the meeting to order by stepping up to the lectern and pounding a gavel and saying “I’d like to call the meeting to order.”
  2. Introduction: the President then introduces the club to any visitors who may have shown up and welcomes them. He (or she) will then ask everyone to stand and pledge allegiance to the flag. He may give a high-level overview of what’s going on that day, then he’ll call up the “Toastmaster of the Day” (sometimes erroneously simply called “the Toastmaster.”)
  3. Announcements: the Toastmaster of the Day (TMOD) will come up to the lectern and give some announcements about how the meeting with go, and he will often ask all people in attendance to stand up and introduce themselves by stating their name, occupation, whether they’re a member of the club or not, and whether they have any “functionary roles” for the meeting. There are many functionary roles filled each week by a club’s members and it’s often helpful for visitors or new members to learn about what those roles are, who is filling them, and what that functionary will be doing. For example: every week there’s a Grammarian, an “Ah Counter,” a Timer, Speech Evaluators, and more.
  4. Speakers Introduction: at this time, if the Toastmaster of the Day (which I’ll now refer to as TMOD) came prepared, he will introduce the speakers who will be giving a speech from one of the many speech manuals (there’s over 80 of them), and he will try to not only introduce the speaker, but give some background on who the speaker is, what the speech is about, and more. In most meetings, you’ll see 1-3 speeches.
  5. Speeches: the speakers of the day will come forward and deliver a prepared speech, usually from one of the many speech manuals, but normally you’ll see newer members giving speeches from the first manual: the “Competent Communicator” manual, which has 10 speeches in it. Everybody has to get through this one. Some people get through this in a few months, and some people take years—it’s all up to you and your own pace. Once you’re done with that, you can then move on to an advanced manual, if you so choose.
  6. Table Topics: this is the part of the meeting that really confuses visitors, and I understand why. When I first visited a Toastmasters club, I HATED table topics and didn’t see the point of it. Basically, someone is called up who was (the week before) assigned the role of “table topics master,” which means that he or she will randomly call on people in the audience and either give them an absurd topic or ask a bizarre question and them tell them to spend one and a half to three minutes elaborating more on the topic. The idea here is to try to get people used to speaking in an impromptu manner and also to learn to run out the clock. For example: you may be given the question “Ron, when you woke up this morning, why did you come to work in your pajamas?” …and then I would have to spend at least one minute elaborating on this silly question with a silly answer. The goal is to really take some time talking—if you answer the question, as newcomers often do, it about 12 seconds and then say “that’s all I have to say,” you’ve failed. You want to at least get to the one minute mark, and preferably draw it out for around two minutes.
  7. Evaluations: in Toastmasters, we love evaluations. We evaluate everything. We have evaluators who evaluate how the speakers did; what they did in their speech that was great; weak spots the speaker has and ways to improve them; and more. And after it’s all done, we even call up a general evaluator to evaluate the evaluators! This makes some people really nervous when they learn about this, but I will say this: every evaluation I have ever seen since joining Toastmasters has been a very polite and positive evaluation designed to encourage the speaker and not criticize them so that they feel bad. In fact, the official word in Toastmasters is that we “evaluate to motivate,” and I’ve definitely seen that played out. Evaluations are an extremely valuable reason for joining Toastmasters.
  8. Functionary Reports: this is when the functionaries I mentioned earlier are called on to give their reports. The “Ah Counter” will rattle off a list of exactly how many filler words were used in the meeting (and I mean literally: the Ah Counter will say “Ron: you had 3 ‘ums,’ 4 ‘uhs,’ and 5 ‘ya knows'” and so on. The Grammarian will then point out (hopefully) all the improper uses of grammar, as well as excellent uses of grammar. The timer will detail how long everyone spoke for (since just about everything in Toastmasters in timed) and you’ll know whether you took too long in your speech or not.
  9. Closing: the TMOD or President will call the meeting to a close, strike the gavel and wish everyone a great week until next time.

Which Club Should I Join?

As I said earlier, the big benefit is the fact that since most clubs are run exactly the same way, you can pretty much know what to expect when visiting a club—even one you’ve never been to before and where you don’t know anybody. Some clubs are stuffy and serious, and everybody there shows up wearing suits and ties. Some are relaxed and silly and informal. Some are packed to the gills with people so it’s impossible to get an opportunity to speak, while others are sparsely attended so you’d have an opportunity to speak just about any day you want. So you’ll probably need to visit a few before you decide on which one you can call home.

Some clubs are private clubs (sometimes called a “closed club”) meaning nobody can join them unless they’re part of an existing organization. For example, there are some clubs on military bases that are only open to active duty military members, and there are some company clubs that are only open to employees of a particular company. (Of course, if you work for a company that has its own Toastmasters club, that usually means it’s held during work hours, at your office). For example, rumor has it that the club I’m a part of (Downtown Toastmasters) started over 34 years ago as an employees-only Toastmasters club for Colorado Springs Utilities. Since that time though, it’s become open to the public.

So go try a few clubs and see which one fits you best. Some meet in the morning (one club I visited met at 6:44:am—WAY too early for me!); some meet in the evening; and some even meet at night after dinner hours. Some meet for an hour, some meet for an hour and a half. For me, the club I ended up joining was the best choice—it meets at 12:05pm on Fridays for one hour. (On a side note—notice the trend? Just about all Toastmasters clubs start and stop at an obscure time: 2:13pm, 6:44am, 12:05pm, etc… the idea is that the time it start is so strange that you should remember it).

Long story short: join the one you feel most comfortable at. And the one that works with your schedule. Just watch out for a bad club or a lazy club—you don’t want to join one that is having a mass exodus of members, or one that will always be a problem club because it meets at a bad time or location so it will never be able to grow.

If you have any need to sharpen your public speaking skills (and odds are, if you work in a professional setting, you do), I highly recommend trying Toastmasters. Give it a shot, and let me know how it goes!

(Here’s a video of me giving a speech at a business conference last year, in case you’re interested. Being a Toastmaster certainly helped give me the confidence to do this!)