Monday, April 25, 2011

Taking potshots at Toastmasters International

Almost two months ago, on February 28th, Jeanne Trojan blogged about having Three Reasons I’m Not a Toastmaster and also posted a slide show - both there and over on Slideshare. There was some discussion of it on Slideshare and John Goalby’s World Champion Evaluator blog, but I think it still deserves some more detailed discussion. 

She just could have said that I’m not a Toastmaster because I already belong to the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), and they cover my interests in business presentations better than Toastmasters would.

Instead she began her slide show by claiming that Toastmasters isn’t about business presentations. That obviously is not completely true because the Toastmasters International web site has a page specifically on Business Presentations. Toastmasters  even has an advanced manual specifically about Technical Presentations. There is another on Persuasive Speaking (formerly called the Professional Salesperson). All fifteen advanced manuals are briefly described here.

Jeanne’s three reasons were that:
1. Toastmasters is about making speeches, NOT presentations.
2. Toastmasters places too little emphasis on the content of a speech.
3. Toastmasters are too nice (they are not allowed to criticize).

She first said that Toastmasters is about making speeches, not business presentations. Next she stated that business presentations are aimed at a specific audience, and their content thus is based on their needs and expectations. That Toastmasters web page on Business Presentations links to two other pages, one about Proposals and Pitches, and another about Technical Briefings. The one about proposals and pitches specifically mentions that you should:

“Analyze your audience and determine its needs.”

The other one about technical briefings says to:

“Know your audience in advance so that you use appropriate levels of technical material and jargon. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time by being too difficult to understand or too boring.”

What she says and what Toastmasters says about audiences are really not very different.

Her second reason is that Toastmasters supposedly places too little emphasis on the content of a speech. I suspect that she got that impression from seeing some speeches for training, particularly the projects from the Toastmasters basic Competent Communication manual.  They do emphasize various delivery skills over content. Elsewhere in her blog Jeanne states the following five presentation review criteria, each of which she rates on a scale from 1 to 5 (where 1 = outstanding and 5 = sucks):

Is the core message of the presentation clear, simple and memorable?

Is all of the information necessary and connected to the core message?
Is there a logical structure?

Does the presenter get our attention from the start and keep it throughout?
Is there a strong impression at the end?

Do the slides catch our attention and create curiosity?
Do they make us want to listen to the speaker to get more information or are they a distraction and too much the focus of the presentation?

Is the speaker clearly enthusiastic about their topic?
Does their presentation presence convey confidence and credibility?

The Toastmasters equivalent to her criteria is the Judge’s Guide for their International Speech Contest:

Speech Development - 20% (structure, organization, support material)
Effectiveness - 15% (achievement of purpose, interest, reception)
Speech Value - 15% (ideas, logic, original thought)

Physical - 10% (appearance, body language, speaking area)
Voice - 10% (flexibility, volume)
Manner - 10% (directness, assurance, enthusiasm)

Appropriateness - 10% (to speech purpose and audience)
Correctness - 10% (grammar, pronunciation, word selection)

Her third reason is that Toastmasters are “too nice.” She quotes the following brief passage from the beginning of an article in the November 2007 Toastmaster magazine by David Hobson titled The 3Rs of Evaluating: Review, Reward and Respond:

‘… there should be no use of the “C” word – Toastmaster evaluators do not criticize – ever!’

She incorrectly interprets this tongue-in-cheek statement as meaning that evaluators are forbidden from giving real honest feedback about what needs improvement. Later in the article Mr. Hobson states (my italics added) that:

“By far the most important aspect for you as an evaluator is to inform the speaker of the elements which, in your opinion, need to be worked on for the next assignment. You should also offer suggestions and provide examples as to how these changes can be made. At least one third of your speaking time should be devoted to dealing with the points for improvement. Failing to do so effectively negates your evaluation; you will not have met your own evaluating objectives. It is your duty to help and encourage the speaker by not only praising his good points, but also by indicating the aspects that did not work quite so well, in your opinion, and offering suggestions for ways to overcome the situation in the future.”

In February 2007 there was another magazine article titled Learning to (almost) Like Criticism. Every Toastmaster also gets a manual about Effective Evaluation. The unpaid volunteer evaluator has to tread more carefully than a paid coach. There is a natural tendency to listen carefully to advice you have paid for. 

In summary, points #1 and #3 of Jeanne’s presentation clearly missed what Toastmasters is about. Using her own scale I’d rate it as a 4 (below average). Her slides are pretty, but the content is mostly junk (her second point).


Anonymous said...

I'd love to +1 this post or just tweet it...
Well, I'll just do it :)

STEVE said...

I would say she's got a great point. I WAS a member of toastmasters for two years, and I stopped because of who and how they evaluate the speakers. The biggest problem with toastmasters is that the audience is not there interested in what you have to say, they are there to count your "ums", so they have no connection to the topic that your speaking to. I've seen many great and moving presentations where the person said "um", paused, or didn't use much humor at all, but because they were reasonably ok at speaking, and their content was tied into something I was interested in, then it made it much better, and they made a real difference. Toastmasters doesn't provide this level of training.

Anonymous said...

In my very first toastmasters meeting I was chosen to do a "table topic" and the only feedback I got was about too many fillers. Now don't get me wrong I think guidance and input is very important but it left me thinking is this what toastmasters is about. I wondered if the content was okay, eye contact, style, message, etc. but what stuck with me was too many fillers. Out of curiosity I did a little research and found pros and cons to counting fillers. It reminded me of a quote I read "in the beginners mind possibilities are many,in the experts mind there are few." Who is right about this I'm not sure but what does trouble me is when groups become cliques rather than remaining groups. The way I see toastmasters trying to defend a difference of opinion troubles me. Toastmasters "seems" to have a hierarchy of status that reeks "if you don't mimic me then you are will not be accepted". More later.

Richard I. Garber said...


In reply to your January 10, 2013 comment, this blog already contains several posts about filler words (or filled pauses), like the September 15, 2011 one titled Should listening to a speech be more like eating a hot dog, or driving down a road:

To see more posts, click on the Label for filled pauses or filler words.

I have left Toastmasters, and discussed my experiences in an August 11, 2011 post titled Moving on beyond Toastmasters:

If you find the right club, Toastmasters can be a very useful experience. Check around and find one that fits you.

Chongbeng said...

Hey Richard, Jeanne Trojan's presentation is no junk. It is succinct and concise to the point. It clearly points out the pitfalls of indulging in a Toastmaster's program or club and losing sight of the more important thing - the message to change the world, but not to just become a mere public speaking champion or achieve a distinguished club's status.

Richard I. Garber said...


Of course her critque is junk. Take a specific example. Jeanne claimed that “Toastmasters is about making speeches NOT presentations” that “you can give the same speech to a variety of audiences and you don’t have to change a thing” as opposed to “Business prsentations are prepared for a specfic audience” and “The content is based on the needs and expectations of each audience.”

Follow my link to the Technical Presentations manual, and read the second objective for the first project, The Technical Briefing, which says to “tailor the presentation to the audience’s needs, interests, and knowledge.”

matthew said...

Tjis article is definitely criticism and not an evaluation! :-)