District Directors Blog

Praise or Flattery? (April 2017)

“Great projection, you certainly grabbed everyone’s attention while taking in the whole room”. I felt the praise was a little generous, after all, I had only sneezed!

Yes, within the walls of the Toastmasters environment, there is a sense of positive feedback that is often lacking in other forums.  However, there is a danger that being overly positive or even verging on flattery towards a speaker will send out the wrong message. To give glowing feedback every time, you are doing a disservice to the speaker and to the organisation.

Toastmasters clubs offer an environment to experiment with speeches, however not all experiments are successful.  We should highlight the areas for improvement and an appropriate evaluation is an essential ingredient to this. It is important to offer a speaker constructive feedback within the protection of the club environment. If we do not, they will not improve.

Ask yourself, would the speaker hold the attention of a non-Toastmasters audience with their speech?  Would a non-Toastmasters audience laugh at their humour?  Consider the message you are giving out, not only to the speaker, but also to other guests – that there is no more room to improve?  That there is no point moving onto the advanced manuals and continuing to challenge yourself?

If you find yourself in the position of being an evaluator, use the sandwich approach and do praise the speaker.  But only if they deserve it.  Be specific with your praise.  Not every speaker delivers an award-winning speech every time.  Disingenuous false praise can be as dangerous as no praise.  Praise, or in some instances flattery, that is unspecific and vague offers no direction for improvement to the speaker.

Have you ever turned up to a Toastmasters meeting after a stressful day at work and the delivered a lack lustre speech? Yet you receive positive feedback that may be a little over the top.  In a world where the phrase “Well Done” can be in short supply, that may just be the therapy you need for the day.  Where else would get it?  In fairness, that’s nothing to be sneezed at either.

 

A People Organisation (March 2017)

Toastmasters is an educational organisation that adopts a “learn-by-doing” philosophy.  Nobody could argue with that, as both the speaker and the audience receive an education at every meeting.  Consider how many speeches you have heard whereby you have been educated on a topic in 5 – 7 minutes.  Refined, to the point and delivered by an engaging speaker.

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At its foundation, Toastmasters is a people organisation where each club has a true sense of community.  This was never more evident to me than at two recent gatherings of Toastmasters.  One was a funeral and the other was a club anniversary night.  What was so apparent at both events was the evidence of such personal stories being shared.  Through member’s speeches we learn so much about the person, as they paint tales of their lives through the spoken word.  Though these were very different gatherings, there was a real sense of comradery and support for fellow members at both.

The fundamental core value of the organisation that relates to the member is that of respect.  The fact is every member enters the club naked, in the metaphorical sense of course.  No matter what a member’s background, status or car they drove to the venue in, each member is treated the same and is given the same opportunity to participate and progress through the Toastmasters program.  Labels are left at the door and everyone is equal.  While we have many written rules and procedures, one of the most important, that is mutually understood is that of basic respect for fellow members, not reverence.

Toastmasters can sometimes be a difficult concept to get across.  Yes, it is a public speaking and leadership organisation. Yes, it is an educational organisation. However, at its very core, it is a people developmental organisation, that equips members with important people skills.

 

Raising the Standard (January 2017)

Just because you are comfortable speaking in front of an audience, does not necessarily mean that you are a good speaker.  Even if you are a good speaker, that does not mean that you always have something to say.  Wow, somebody got out of bed at the wrong side this morning!

bluegrowthchartWe all know people who are perceived as good speakers but simply say nothing. It is sad that cliché driven jargon is so common place in speeches, work meetings and social commentary.  With so many speakers jumping on the bandwagon, churning out the same old message.  Let’s chew on this idea for a moment or simply tease it out and look at it from another angle.  If we peel back the layers of the onion, or take a 2-pronged approach, I think we’ll quickly find that we need a solution focused approach to the problem.  That’s assuming of course we’re comparing apples with apples. I’d hate to sound like a broken record so for now, so let’s simply kick to touch and we’ll tackle that issue later.  Oh no, I’ve fallen into the same old trap!  This could yet be the rock I’ll perish on.  I’m sure I’ll find my feet.  Have I opened a can of worms?  Now that’s something to chew on!

Some of the most inspiring authentic speeches I’ve ever heard were at regular Toastmasters meetings.  Why is that?  Could it be that we are judged by our peers and get honest feedback each time we deliver a speech, in an environment where this is the norm?  It is up to us all, when carrying out the role of evaluator, to sometimes show tough love.  Whether the speaker is in the early stages of speaking, or has already some fancy letters after their name, it is critical that the speaker is afforded honest feedback.  Where appropriate, refer to the jargon, highlight the clichés and comment on the speech’s message.

In raising the standard of your speaking, you have a greater opportunity to make a difference on a topic you really care about.  That speech may not just inform, but really change somebody’s view on a topic.  A speech can also inspire somebody else to speak up about something.  Raising the standard of our speeches will raise the overall standard of our organisation.  We all play an important role here.  Let’s all aspire to be that speaker who stands out from the crowd.  Be authentic, be yourself and find your voice.

 

How was I to know? (December 2016)

“If only I’d known that she had such personal things going on in her life, I certainly would have thought twice about sending such a nasty, demanding email.  How was I to know that Anne was living with depression and was after a close family bereavement?” 

While the name Anne is fictional for the purposes of this piece, there is an “Anne” in most clubs, who may portray confidence in an effort keep up his/her guard. Relationship stresses, job losses, anxiety disorders and personal tragedies are all part of life.  What has this to do with Toastmasters?  Let’s recap on club 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”.  There is no mention of a speech.  You might even say, it’s an antidote to some of life’s woes.

Running a successful Toastmasters club and interacting with fellow leaders within the organisation will no doubt mean correspondence over email and social media.  If you’ve found yourself in a leadership position, be it as a club president or leading any team, remember that leadership at its very core is about building relationships and influencing people.

“But she wasn’t listening to me, so I had to send that email!”  Really?  How about challenging yourself to use your speaking skills, your listening skills and working on your emotional intelligence to help with your communication style.  Soft skills that can be honed in your Toastmasters meeting.  If you find yourself crossing that line because of a fancy new title, or because you just “know better”, maybe it’s time to rethink your actions.  Whether it’s a new club member or one who has climbed the organisation’s ladder, each member deserves the same level of respect.  Recent technological trends have meant that more and more people are being bullied on-line.  On-line forums are more likely to attract sensationalist viewpoints, and many posts are simply to ignite a reaction, often lacking any emotional intelligence and written into the ether without consideration for the consequences.  As a rule of thumb, you should praise in public and criticise in private.

The “Anne” in your club may not always be possible to identify.  But how about treating everybody with the same level of respect that you would offer if your audience all comprised of characters like “Anne”?  Ask yourself, if you were having a bad day, how would you react if you received a nasty demanding email?  Toastmasters is a non-profit organisation which is run by volunteers, many of whom are challenging themselves in achieving personal goals.  More importantly it is at its very core, a people organisation, which can provide a much-needed antidote to life’s woes.

 

Speech Preparation (November 2016)

Dublin City Marathon 2016 – I did it!  Was it pretty?  No.  I struggled bigtime for the second half of the race?  Why?  Lack of preparation.  Simple as that.  I was expecting my “muscle memory” to kick in.  It didn’t.  Even though I got a few laughs from fellow runners who spotted “I thought they said RUM!” on the back of my t-shirt, even though the support and encouragement was amazing, I knew this wasn’t to be my finest hour.  Thankfully a finishers medal and t-shirt was waiting for me at the finish line, like there was for each of the 20 thousand athletes that completed the course.  But who was I really competing with?  The marathon winner or the person running their very first marathon?

dublin-medalI often compare running a marathon with delivering a great speech.  Few people jump out of bed and run a marathon.  In the same way, few people are natural award winning orators.  Toastmasters clubs are your training ground where you improve your speech crafting and delivery in a step by step way.  However, this will only happen if you attend your meetings, read the manual and follow the specific guidelines of each speech.  How many of us have skipped to the speech objectives without reading the full project manual?  Be sure to ask for honest feedback and why not even consider re-delivering a speech?  I delivered a club speech recently where a member from a neighbouring club’s feedback was “Good content although you were using notes, surprisingly”.  He was right.

Joining Toastmasters, for many is a very personal decision for self-improvement.  Just like the decision to sign up to run your first marathon, getting awards or even winning, are far from people’s minds.  Toastmasters is also a self-certification organisation where the only person you compete with is yourself.  Remember, you are also only as good as your last speech.  Getting complacent, sitting on previous accomplishments or referring to your CV as “An Advanced Communicator” may not be enough when you are expected to deliver where it really matters.  As Stephen Covey says – “Sharpen the saw”.

This is what the training boot-camp was all about. Had I attended boot-camp and genuinely put in all the prescribed work I would have enjoyed this marathon so much more.  I’d have cherished my medal knowing that I’d given it 100%.  The Toastmasters programme is also designed to allow all members to become better speakers, but only if you put in genuine preparation.  Are you up for the challenge?  I am.

 

Speaking of Technology (October 2016)

Which speech feedback medium do you feel is most effective?

  • A personal handshake and gesture with the words “Well done”.
  • A text message with the words “Well done” after a meeting.
  • An on-line endorsement of support or “thumbs-up” from 200 strangers (I mean friends of course!)

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Toastmasters is a public speaking organisation. It is not an IT communications organisation, whereby social media is the communication medium of choice. Social media has created many Keyboard Warriors, who often vent into a machine, but still hide behind the medium technology in an effort to communicate. The next time you express an opinion on-line, ask yourself, would you say it to someone’s face?

Detox from Technology is a popular new fad whereby weekend retreats, without technology, are in vogue. Thankfully every Toastmasters meeting is such a retreat. Could it in fact be, one of the last refuges where it is frowned upon to have your phone on? During how many other meetings, be it at work or in other voluntary organisations, is it now socially acceptable to have your phone on? As an attendee your physical presence can take second place to that of an incoming message. I am guilty myself of taking out my laptop and hammering away at the keyboard during meetings, showing little respect for the speaker.

At Toastmasters we develop skills like reading an audience and altering our message. We adjust our delivery in reaction to facial expressions and body language. Being able to see a smile or frown, allows for a greater understanding of our audience. This is not possible via on-line messaging. We all know that less than 10% of communication is carried by the words that we use. By communicating online, we are already reduced to this percentage. The next time you’re looking to get an issue resolved why not consider giving someone a call, or even better using Skype or FaceTime, rather than hammering at the keyboard. Consider how you give feedback to your fellow club members. Let’s choose the greatest medium of communication, our voices, whenever we have that choice. We are all effective oral communicators. We are Toastmasters.

 

Speaking Outside Toastmasters (August 2016)

The club environment is a workshop, or the training ground.  Let’s compare it to training for a marathon.  Before one of my recent Toastmaster club speeches, I asked the audience to turn their backs to me so they could focus on my voice.  I made my evaluator earn his supper that night!  Do I regret it?  No.  Would I do it again?  Maybe not.  But it’s ok to try out a new approach, or try out some new material.  Remember in the Toastmasters club environment it’s ok to fail.

“Nobody joins Toastmasters to be better at speaking in front of Toastmasters”.  Initially I was taken aback by this statement from a past District Governor.  Back then, I was a newbie at District Officer Training.  I liked speaking in front of my home Toastmasters club.  I liked visiting other Toastmasters clubs and delivering speeches.  I still do. I’m always assured of a warm, welcoming and attentive audience and they usually say nice things. standup comedy2.jpg

But do you bring the wealth of speaking experience into “The Real World”?  Where do you show-case your speaking skills?  My challenge to each member this year is to find a forum outside of Toastmasters to use your speaking skills.  Be it finding your voice at a community group, auditioning for a play, coaching an underage soccer team, participating in an Open Mic Night, performing a reading at a wedding, offering to be quizmaster, the list is endless.  The world is full of speaking opportunities and as a Toastmaster you are qualified to speak in “The Real World”!

Maybe the reason you joined Toastmasters was not to speak in front of Toastmasters after all.  Always remember the reason that you joined.  For many it may be personal.  For others it is that challenge.  Find your voice and share about your experiences.  These make for truly inspiring stories.  Stories that will inspire the next potential member to take that leap and join a club.

Some marathon training sessions are tough.  The early mornings, the running on an empty stomach, the speed work. I’m even trying out some new gels at the moment.  All my preparation may not go according to plan.  But I know that this is the training ground and I will learn from my mistakes, getting it right on race day.  Toastmasters club meetings are your training ground.

 

Polishing a Speech (July 2016)

Does a speech need to be polished before requesting a speaking slot with your club Vice President Education (VPE)?  I used to think so.  How could I deliver a substandard speech and compete with the best speakers in the club?  Of course it needed more editing, tweaking and fine-tuning before I could finally deliver my masterpiece.  In one Toastmasters term I remember delivering two such masterpieces, or at least I convinced myself that they were!

Some of the most memorable speeches that I’ve experienced include “The Willow Plate”, “Should you inflate your life vest before leaving the plane?” and “The Egg”.   You don’t recognise them?  They may not be award winning speeches.  Chances are that you will not find them on YouTube either.  Did the speaker use notes?  Probably.  But all fantastic memorable speeches that left a lasting impact on me and no doubt the entire audience.  Audiences that would not have been moved had each speaker decided to leave the speech in the drawer or wait till it was polished. bale of hay2

So what does a bale of hay have to do with writing a speech?  Nothing.  However, many clubs take a sabbatical during the summer to “save the hay”.  I urge you to use this time off to jot down speech ideas.  The best ones are often the simple ones.  The universal topics that any audience can associate with.  Perhaps an observation or a funny incident. A stimulating conversation or a crazy plan.  A simple idea can quickly develop into a great speech.

Remember a speech can rarely be fully crafted without audience feedback.  A speech is rarely the same each time it’s delivered.  Why not craft your speech by using your audience and perhaps consider delivering it again, maybe while visiting another club?  Do not underestimate the lasting impact you, as a speaker, can have on your audience without even knowing it and remember the only person you compete with is yourself.  Book a speaking slot today, even with a speech that is not yet polished.  Your club VPE will love you.

I often compare delivery of a great speech with that feeling of completing a marathon.  Very few people get up and run a marathon with no training.  I’ve signed up for the Dublin Marathon this year.  Training has begun.  Will I win it?  Hope springs eternal.

Michael Collins

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