Thursday, December 26, 2013

What Is Toastmasters?

In the old days, anyone who was afraid of standing before a crowd and delivering a speech would check in to therapy. He would examine in his issues and try to work out why he feared public speaking.

The process would probably not produce any notable benefit. We recall Janet Malcolm’s study of the case of an analyst dubbed “Aaron Green” in her book The Impossible Profession.

Green had undergone psychoanalysis as part of his professional training. When he began analysis he was very afraid of speaking in public. When he finished analysis he was very afraid of speaking in public.

Let’s not call it a great success.

Today, people who are afraid to speak in public will often sign up with a group called Toastmasters. Recently, New York Times reporter Henry Alford did just that.

At Toastmasters meetings people do not sit around talking about why they are afraid to speak up in public. They stand up and speak to the assembled group.

Moreover they do not just learn about the psychological side of the issue; they learn how to construct an effective speech.

Alford explains correctly that no one can overcome a fear of public speaking without doing a great deal of public speaking. One suspects, for example, that teachers conquer their fear of public speaking by doing their job.

The result: Toastmasters did not eliminate all of Alford’s anxiety, but it helped him get it under control. It taught him how to give an engaging speech.

Without having further information one does not know how well the approach would work with people who are suffering from phobias about public speaking. Nevertheless, Toastmasters is therapeutic in ways that many forms of therapy are not.

Nearly everyone will, at some point or another, be called upon to deliver a speech in public. It might not be before an audience of thousands, but you will surely be called on to present a report to a committee or to pitch some new business to a prospective client.  

Whatever the case, it’s a good to learn how to deliver a speech.

Like many phobias, fear of public speaking has a rational basis. It makes sense that people would feel less than comfortable about standing up in public and exposing themselves to scrutiny. As famed psychologist Aaron Beck pointed out, most of the situations and objects that provoke intense fear are dangerous: snakes, spiders, heights and crowds.
A phobia is a rational fear taken to an extreme. Despite what psychoanalysts used to believe, it is not about nothing.

In any event, Toastmasters should count as a quasi-cognitive-behavioral treatment for those whose inability to deliver an effective speech has been inhibiting their career advancement.


David Foster said...

Colleges should be teaching Rhetoric, which was once considered as one of the fundamental Liberal Arts. Anyone who gets a college degree should have some experience in developing effective talks/presentations, giving them to groups, and defending his ideas in debate.

Most professions, especially those that require college degrees, involve this skill set...and too many people fail at it pretty badly. There are many academics who can't speak to their classes coherently, but the problem isn't limited to academia...there are plenty of people in business, even in the sales and marketing arena, who are badly in need of improvement in their Rhetorical skills.

Sam L. said...

Dale Carnegie courses would work, too.

Unknown said...

"Alford explains correctly that no one can overcome a fear of public speaking without doing a great deal of public speaking."

Absolutely. I overcame my fear of public speaking by becoming a lector at my church. On my first attempt, I was shaking so scared that almost no one could understand what I was saying. Several years later, I was getting praises for my public speaking from actors and politicians who frequent my church.

Practice, practice and more practice is all it takes.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks all for the comments... I do want to second David's remark-- colleges should definitely be teaching rhetoric... which is not just about public speaking but about persuading others.

Ares Olympus said...

I was a member for about 9 years total and learned all about how it works, and recommend it greatly. I first joined after college, and also joined a ballroom dance club as well, which put this introvert into multiple social dimensional frying pans.

Toastmaster has two different skills taught - public speaking (and listening/evaluating) first, and leadership second for people who become club (or higher level area, district, region) officers, which keeps everything running while learning organizational skills and leading meetings with Roberts rules of order to run meetings well.

When I first joined I most hated "Table topics", where you are given a question and have to speak for 30-90 seconds on that topic. My best failure was an area contest tables topic question which had a double-negative in the wording which totally confused me, but sometimes just surviving and not running away is where the real lessons are learned.

Speech evaluations are also a tricky domain. I remember when I first joined, I didn't want any evaluation at all, and talked to the officers, and they convinced me I wanted to hear feedback. I learned everyone ends up with different ways they hear and give feedback, so some of the best feedback came when we did group evaluation, although usually the evaluation itself is also a speech, centered around an evaluation form for specific feedback on each focus.

Being a club officer was also enlightening, and I got to see there's two components - basically being organized first, and then social skills - like welcoming guests. I don't know if an introvert can ever master it, but for me I could fake it by preparation, but really what leadership felts like is "worrying about everything". And I see sometimes you have to let things go badly, let disorganization show through, because adaptive recovery is another side of leadership, to have confidence you can pull order back out of the chaos.

We also had some good debates, both serious and for fun, with international members, politics is wider than just American concerns, like after 9/11.

As an officer, I also had fun organizing group meetings with other clubs, and got a few local politicians to come in and practice their speeches just to get feedback. So even if you're good at public speaking, TM will help you, and good clubs love to bring in guest speakers.

A weird idea was also taught - that a speaker should never say thank you after a speech, since it was the audience who is supposed to be thankful, but its impossible not to feel grateful when people listen to your thoughts, and so many of us simply disobeyed that directive.

Anyway, I recommend toastmasters as perhaps a nearly perfect place for structured and creative learning of how to express yourself, how to listen, and how to lead others.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks so much, AO. I am happy to read the testimony of someone who was part of Toastmasters. It adds greatly to the conversation.

Lastango said...

Former Toastmasters member here... a few points for anyone considering joining:

- for nervous folk, one of the best features is that you're speaking to fellow members who want to help you succeed. They're on your side!

- you're free to experiment. Ferinstance, what's it like to abandon the lectern, and try to communicate and connect with the audience while you walk around in the open? Was it effective, or distracting?

- it takes effort to prepare a talk. Join only if you're prepared to do some work. (That's an important realization for speaking in other contexts - good presentations in the workplace, or giving a talk to your bible study group.)

- there's a social side to Toastmasters meetings. The group can be a lot of fun!

- after a bit, you'll be able to critique your own talks. Video yourself, and you'll be able to see if you're moving too much or too little, if your gestures are appropriate, if your use of notes was intrusive, and so on.

- the group can give feedback you'll never be able to get in any other way. For instance, did you make the audience feel welcome and important? If so, they will love you for it. That's a broadly applicable skill.

Toastmasters is a great experience, and I agree completely with David that public speaking ought to taught in school.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information on Toastmasters! I have been a guest twice with friends who are members, and am considering joining after finishing class.

As for public speaking and rhetoric, I was disappointed when my high school dropped Speech from their graduation requirements. A most-hated class, it was also one of the most useful.

Richard I. Garber said...


When were the old days for you? Next year Toastmasters International will be 90 years old. The New York Times thinkst enough of it to sponsor their own corporate club, Times Toastmasters.

Public speaking is the most common social fear for U.S. adults. It affects about one in five of us. About one in ten has a phobia. See:

I suspect that Toastmasters might not be enough to help those with a phobia. But, it’s worth a try. Anyone considering it should visit several clubs before picking one with a good fit.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, richard. I was trying to point out that people today are less likely to try to solve their problems, as in, problems with public speaking, by repairing to a therapist or a psychoanalyst's office and more likely to go to meetings of Toastmasters. Neither I nor the times suggested that it had been invented yesterday. I thought it interesting that the Times had published an article about how well it had worked for one of their reporters... which tells me that, for some, having recourse to Toastmasters has something to do with the waning influence of therapy.