Toastmasters Has a Problem it Desperately Needs to Address

The beloved nonprofit educational organization Toastmasters, has, for over a century, aimed to turn its members into more effective communicators. While Toastmasters boasts its usefulness in all kinds of settings — from parenting conversations, to job interviews, to debates with colleagues — the organization’s most vital objective is preparing members to deliver the important speeches in their lives: wedding toasts, investor pitches, company presentations, public addresses. The idea that one speech, delivered well, can change the world is not hyperbole to its over 350,000 members. It’s the guiding principle.

As a grateful decade-long member, former club president, and someone profoundly vested in the organization’s success, I often find myself asking the question: how well is it accomplishing this objective?

Not well enough, it pains me to say. Toastmasters has a problem. Its hyper-focus (some might say obsession) with issues of speaking delivery is resulting in a neglect of what truly makes a speech effective: compelling content.

I first glimpsed this problem early in my Toastmasters career after competing in the third round of its International Speech Contest. After failing to place in the top three out of a field of ten, I began to ruminate incessantly. Was my message not persuasive enough? Was my evidence weak? Was my thesis not big or controversial enough to be interesting? In despair, I begged one of the judges afterwards, against contest policy, to tell me what happened. After a bit of cajoling, she reluctantly revealed one of her most decisive considerations: for much of the speech, my right hand was in my pocket.

An Unhealthy Disdain for Mistakes

I was stunned, but not surprised. The no-hands-in-pockets prohibition wasn’t some quirk, it was part of a long list of pedantic rules of style which Toastmasters takes quite seriously.

Another such rule: nix the filler words. Toastmasters famously wages war on the meaningless ah’s and um’s that litter our speech, occupying the spaces between our sentences. Indeed, every Toastmasters meeting includes an assigned ah-counter, someone who conspicuously sits in the audience, counts every single verbal disfluency uttered by a speaker, and then, at the end, delivers an oral report shaming the offenders.

Admittedly, these filler words can be problematic at the extreme. Listening to a speaker who says uh every two seconds can make even the most patient audience member want to poke her eyes out. But the implied premise on which the rule is based, that good speakers don’t use filler words, is easily refuted by simply noticing how many exceptional public speakers, most notably former President Barack Obama, utter them.

To further poke holes in the premise, we can look to the research, which suggests that filler words, when used properly and in moderation, may not only fail to hurt a speaker, but may even help. Indeed, some studies suggest the occasional “uh” help listeners process our speech more effectively. Others claim that filler words can serve as a sign of thoughtfulness.

And then there’s the rule against errors of language. Similar to the ah-counter, another dedicated member, this one called the grammarian, records and publicly reports “incomplete sentences, mispronunciations, grammatical mistakes, non-sequiturs, malapropisms, etc.” Yes, the role makes some sense for those who have spent time carefully crafting their speeches in advance. The majority of speeches in a normal Toastmasters meeting, however, are extemporaneous. Who the hell talks in perfect sentences when they’re speaking off the cuff?

And trying to speak error-free, it appears, can carry severe consequences. In his literature review, Graham Bodies cites evidence suggesting that individuals who see public speaking as a performance, who perceive the audience to be evaluating them closely for mistakes, suffer from higher levels of anxiety. Whereas individuals who see public speaking as a conversation, who believe the audience is mainly interested in what they have to say, enjoy lower levels of anxiety. An important finding, because this is one of Toastmasters most famous promises: to help members conquer their often debilitating fear of public speaking.

Alongside Toastmasters’ list of style don’ts, equally problematic is their list of style do’s.

A Questionable Partiality for Theatrics

Toastmasters stresses the importance of well-timed and deliberate hand gestures, frequent variety of volume and tone, and dynamic stage movement. These may all sound like good suggestions, and they are — when sprinkled on a speech in moderation. But Toastmasters venerates and elevates members who rip the cap off the shaker, and dump it all on. The result is a speaking style unsuitable for most real world contexts.

For a demonstration, look no further than Toastmasters’ crown jewel, the previously mentioned International Speech Contest. Once a year, thousands of Toastmasters members from all over the world compete tournament style, through 6 rounds, until in the end, just one speaker remains: the World Champion. It’s the March Madness of public speaking. I’ve heard that many serious contestants spend almost an entire year preparing, dedicating themselves to the Toastmasters way. If Toastmasters’ training was helping any members deliver high-quality speeches, surely it would be these champions. Unfortunately, the winning speeches aren’t as groundbreaking as you might expect.

In Ryan Avery’s 2012 contest winning speech titled Trust is a Must, he recounts a series of poignant, often humorous personal anecdotes which have taught him the importance of keeping one’s promises. To an adoring Toastmasters audience, Avery’s speech is a masterpiece. Every hand gesture is perfectly timed, his volume and tone varies constantly, he utters no filler words, and his hands never enter his pockets once!

But many outside the Toastmasters bubble see the speech differently. Just glance at some of the comments below the Youtube video and you’ll find a staggering number of critical reviews:

“Too much acting.”

“Too forced, too technical, too slick and polished.”

“So saccharin I think it gave me diabetes.”

The reviews are harsh, but, unfortunately for Avery, not inaccurate. Avery’s hand gestures are too perfectly timed, making him appear over-rehearsed and unnatural. His stage movements are too dynamic, bordering on gimmicky. His portrayal of characters — like his mother and the local sheriff — are entertaining but so overdone they become caricatures, perhaps suitable for a wacky off-broadway one-man show, but not for the typical kind of speech Toastmasters is trusted to prepare its members for.

But the biggest problem with Avery’s speech is that his overemphasis on style comes at a steep sacrifice to substance.

Substance Takes a Backseat

Avery’s speech is the very personification of Toastmasters’ style over substance problem. Make no mistake, Avery is a gifted storyteller whose personal anecdotes tug at the heart strings. Which makes it especially disappointing to see him deploy these skills in service of such a bland and facile thesis. Trust is a must? When it comes to relationships, who in their right mind thinks that trust is optional?

Avery’s is not the only contest winning speech that lacks substance. Save a few exceptions, winning Toastmasters speeches are all startlingly basic. Manoj Vasuvedan’s 2017 contest winning speech centers around cliche and un-useful keys to relationship success, namely flexibility and compromise. Jim Key’s 2003 inspirational speech reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that it’s never too late to follow our dreams. Darren LacRoix’s 2002 winning speech, titled “Ouch” reveals the mind-blowingly obvious key to success: refusing to be discouraged by failure.

These Mickey Mouse speeches are no accident. They are a direct result of the Toastmasters curriculum which does a profound disservice to the importance of strong, intellectually satisfying content. Now let me be fair, Toastmasters doesn’t ignore content. In fact, 5 of the first 10 lessons in its competent communicator manual focus on substantive issues such as purpose, organization, and research. A fine start, but these modules barely scratch the surface. And advanced manuals, which are presumably supposed to go deeper, never quite do. And it shows in the rudimentary speeches that members at all levels give.

Toastmasters’ style over substance approach may help its members excel in front of an audience easily dazzled by delivery, but they don’t set these members up for success anywhere else except for inside the Toastmasters universe.

Which begs the question: what is to blame for Toastmasters’ misguided approach?

A Confused View of the Importance of Delivery

At the root of Toastmasters methodology is an unstated, but pervasive belief: delivery is what fundamentally drives speech quality.

The belief is seductive because it’s partially true. Particularly in the case of fledgling speakers, the very kind who show up to Toastmasters because their knees rattle incessantly as soon as they set foot on stage, or whose speech is so littered with the word like it’s distracting, or whose voice is so monotonous it puts audiences into a coma. For these speakers, improving delivery can have an immediate and often transformational impact. I’ve seen it myself.

But Toastmasters assumes, mistakenly, that those kinds of rapid gains continue on forever. They don’t. Once a fledgling speaker develops a style of delivery adequate enough to earn and then keep an audience’s attention, the gains from additional improvement prove incremental and slow. Moreover, after a certain point, additional improvement can backfire. The speaker begins to look too polished, too perfect, too rehearsed, which comes off as, in the vast majority of contexts, weird and unnatural.

If delivery is what truly drove speaking success, then we would expect the best speeches to be overwhelmingly delivered by the best orators. But if we look at the top 20 most viewed speeches on TED’s website, a decent proxy for modern world class speeches, most are not exceptional presenters. Granted, none are bad, but the majority — like Jill Taylor or Kelly McGonical or Pranav Mistry — are merely average in their abilities.

The one thing every one of these 20 TED speeches does have in common, however, without exception, is a profound message. A strong, interesting, unique, well-supported thesis. In other words, they all contain exceptional ideas.

Nor should this conclusion surprise us. It’s all too evident in history’s greatest speeches. Whether it’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a Dream, or Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech, or Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, it’s the content of these speeches, the message, the ideas, the quotes that many can recite by heart, that is what ultimately moved listeners then, and what continues to move them today. (In the case of Lincoln’s speech, we don’t even have the video. It’s enduring resonance is based solely on its content).

Yes, delivery matters. Especially for novice speakers, and it gives an edge to intermediate and advanced speakers, but it’s content that fundamentally drives speaking performance. And until Toastmasters embraces this simple truth, it is in danger of continuing to foster speakers that don’t measure up in the real world.

The Path Forward

If Toastmasters wants to fulfill its vitally important mission, it must address its style over substance problem and start privileging content over delivery. But how? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have a few suggestions to get us started:

First, let’s center the curriculum on speech writing. With the exception of fledgling speakers whose delivery distracts, make the primary focus be issues of content. Let’s go beyond teaching members that they should merely have a thesis, and make it clear that their thesis should be interesting, provocative, worth arguing. Let’s teach them how to back up their ideas with more than just emotionally loaded anecdotes. And how to think critically about their own argument, so they can discover the nuances and complexities.

Second, let’s promote the view of speech as a conversation instead of performance. Teach people it’s okay to make mistakes. Get rid of the no-hands-in-pocket prohibition, the stigma against filler words, guidelines for moving about the stage, and other pedantic rules of style. Help speakers understand that, above all, it’s their overall message that counts. Help speakers continually improve their delivery, but only in so much as it helps enhance the audience’s understanding of their message.

And finally, let’s reform the International Speech Contest. Let’s encourage our most talented members to spend the bulk of their time, not perfecting hand gestures, but instead locating and developing a powerful message that promotes a worthy cause, a movement, or a new way of thinking. Let’s not pick contest winners based on trivial issues of style but rather the content. Let’s gauge the quality of these speeches on how likely they are to persuade an audience, to move them to action, to change the world.

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