Public Speaking Myths: Joining Toastmasters will Make You a Better Speaker

It seems like every business expert that also has speaking experience likes to throw in a line about joining Toastmasters International to become a better speaker. Some of these people joined a club and it helped them become better speakers while others simply regurgitate this advice from other sources. Although Toastmasters has worked for a lot of folks (myself included), simply joining won’t necessarily make you a better speaker.

Before I go on, I should explain my own Toastmasters experience. I joined a community club in September of 2002 and was an active member of that club through 2005. I served as Club President and Area Governor so I worked with a number of clubs and met people from all over the district. After an 18-month hiatus (due to personal commitments), I rejoined my club as well as an advanced club. A year after that, my speaking schedule caused to me to end my membership in both clubs so now I periodically visit my original club as a guest (I’ll be attending their next meeting).

I credit a lot of my speaking success to Toastmasters (as well as the Dale Carnegie Course) and have also seen several people grow from nervous folks that clutch the lectern to confident speakers and leaders. However, I’ve seen just as many folks sign up and never come back – and even worse, some people finding a comfort level and sticking to it. From my experiences, I’d say that less than half of the people who join Toastmasters end up getting significant results.

The reason why I boldly called the generic advice of “you should join Toastmasters” a myth is because the advice is often stated unqualified. A more accurate statement would be “You can become a better speaker by taking an active role in the right Toastmasters club.” I know it sounds a bit nitpicky but I have met a significant number of folks that had joined Toastmasters and didn’t get any benefit from it.

In order for you to succeed in Toastmasters, you need three things. First, you need a club that has a helpful atmosphere and encourages growth. Second, you need to be committed to becoming an active member of that club. And finally, you need to commit to grow beyond Toastmasters – and that doesn’t mean joining an advanced club or joining other clubs.

Choosing the right club:

You need to find a club that’s right for you. Just because someone you know likes a particular club, doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your personality. Some folks prefer the intimacy of a small club while others prefer the variety of a larger club. Some folks prefer a community club so they can meet folks who live near them where others may target a corporate club so they can connect with people in a particular company or industry.

Some of the things to look for in choosing a club:

  • Are the members active? If meetings have low attendance, the Toastmaster is practically begging people to fill in key roles at the meeting and the club officers aren’t terribly interested in their roles, then that club is dying.
  • Are the members cliquey? If you feel like you’re not part of the group, you’re less likely to participate.
  • Are the evaluations too soft or too harsh?
  • Are the members friendly and inviting?
  • Do you feel welcome when you attend meetings?

The tricky thing about choosing a club is that we often look for clubs that are close to us geographically or fit our schedules best. But if the clubs in your neighborhood aren’t a good match for you, it may be worth an extra 20 minutes ride to find a club that will suit you better.

Being committed:

So you’ve found a good club, now what? The first thing you want to do is attend as many meetings as possible and sign up for roles. I recommend giving a speech at least once every two months (one per month if possible) and taking a smaller role at meetings that you’re not giving speeches at.

You want to avoid being a lurker – someone that attends but doesn’t participate. As I mentioned, I have seen a lot of folks come to a meeting as a guest, sign up that night and never return. The next step up from that are folks that attend, but don’t participate. Even if you’re not comfortable taking on a role, show up early or stick around late to talk to other members. At the very least, talk to the officers – ask them about their roles, they’d be glad to tell you more. But get involved, even it means helping create a club newsletter or working on the website. If a spot is open, become an officer.

Growing beyond your toastmasters club:

So you’re super involved and now the most popular member of your club. The next step is to take it to the next level. Again, speaking is like exercising and you need to constantly change your routine to grow. Speaking in front of the same group from week to week makes you comfortable with that audience so it’s good to change things up.

So here are some things you can do to further your horizons:

  • Visit other clubs to see how you perform with a different audience.
  • Participate in a TLI or present at a conference.
  • Speak outside of Toastmasters at service clubs such as Rotary or Lions.
  • Put on a presentation at your local library or community center.

So as you can see, there’s a lot more than simply joining Toastmasters to help you become a better speaker.

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16 thoughts on “Public Speaking Myths: Joining Toastmasters will Make You a Better Speaker

  1. Simon - presentation skills trainer

    I originally started to read your article because of the title and found myself agreeing with it… but I’ve been banging on for years in various blogs about the risks of Toastmasters too.

    The strength of such places (that you get peer reviewed etc.) is also the weakness sometimes (you get PEER reviewed): most Toastmasters are good places but sometimes this can lead to a degree of mediocrity because no one knows what GREAT public speaking looks like.

    And on one one or two horrible occations I’ve both seen and heard of positivily dangerous advice being given!

    But like I say, generally a great place!

    Simon

  2. James Post author

    Simon,

    You’re absolutely right. I always give my students that caveat when it comes to Toastmasters. The feedback is only as good as the person giving it.

    Thanks for commenting.

    James

  3. Jeff

    I would add an item to the “Some of the things to look for when choosing a club” section of your post.

    Make certain that the club includes at least a few people who speak very well. It makes all the difference in the world.

    One thing that you learn from any evaluation is to sit there and take criticism. It is a skill that we all need to develop.

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  8. TM Mike

    I saw your headline and was all up and arms as Toastmasters is the best thing to happen to me. Then I read it and said gee you got a point. I emailed the link to my other club officers. Very good points. Thanks for posting. Bye, Mike.

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  13. Kevin Kane

    James, good point not to remain insulated inside of Toastmasters.

    We’ll learn a lot more — and more quickly — by speaking outside of Toastmasters.

    Wasn’t that the reason we joined Toastmasters to begin with? To be a better speaker in the real world?

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