Toastmasters: talking your way to leadership

23:00, Mar 11 2013
Southland Times photo
March is Toastmasters International Awareness fortnight.

Filled with fear at the thought of speaking in public? During the annual Toastmasters' Fortnight, Amanda Watson takes the plunge.

There's a good reason public speaking frequently ranks in a top-10 fear list, frequently outranking even death.

By the time we finish high school, we have sniggered through years of assemblies. We have seen star-struck masters of ceremonies stammer through introductions before exiting, ignominiously, stage left.

Thanks to the English curriculum, we have shared their pain.

My own C-minus strategy to cope with the annual speech assignment was to craft a beautiful five-minute talk, then deliver it in less than 90 seconds, all while staring fixedly at my feet.

"She talked too fast," someone invariably whined from the back of the class. (My preoccupation with the floor meant I never identified the culprit.)


Yes, 'tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.

However, more and more of us are challenging the value of that truism, with Toastmasters International membership growing even in this time-poor age.

It's not about public speaking per se, but more that public speaking is a crucial plank of leadership, says Otago Southland Division Governor Dean Addie.

But for those able to tame that tiger, the world - in a mixed metaphor - is their oyster.

History is peppered with heroes remembered not for what they did, but rather for what they said: Winston Churchill ("We will fight them on the beaches"), Martin Luther King ("I have a dream").

Corporate Cinderella stories like those of Apple and Virgin would have played out very differently were it not to the persuasive powers of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

Of course, the true test of leadership is whether anyone follows and, since we all feel much better following a hero, practising courage is a great start.

Hence, at 7am on a Wednesday, I'm in what could be any tertiary classroom in any New Zealand.

I'm surrounded by Toastmasters - those who felt the fear and spoke up anyway.

"We're the No 1 leadership training course in the world," Addie says.

It's hard to believe this room of latter-day heroes and captains of industry made their maiden speeches with quavering voices and knocking knees, but it's true Addie says.

"We all start out like that."

Because communication is as much about listening as it is about speaking, each speaker is evaluated (commend, recommend, commend), and then the evaluator's feedback is in turn critiqued.

Members take turns organising and chairing the meeting.

They are not creating confident bores. They learn how to tell jokes so they remain funny, how to seamlessly welcome and hand over to other speakers, and the impromptu speech.

It's invigorating, Anna Thomas says, a member of six months standing. Sure, on Tuesday nights she may be a bundle of nerves, but by 8am on Wednesday she's on top of the world for the rest of the week.

The 26-year-old was talked into coming to a meeting six months ago. It's the best thing she's ever done. "Everyone probably thinks their group is the best, but mine really is."

Why join? While a common theme is professional development, there's also an aspect of personal development.

"It's the only thing I do for me," says Addie, who joined five years ago.

Already a company chief executive, he was practised at side-stepping speaking engagements and might well have carried on avoiding any speaking to this day were it not for a private function where he froze, disappointed to this day about his inability to say a simple public thank-you to a family friend.

Aaron Leith worked for Ngai Tahu in Christchurch when he was introduced to Toastmasters.

"It was very, very hard to get up and speak in front of a group, but I knew myself I was going to get into that situation with my job and I had to do something."

Ten years, three jobs and half an island later, Aaron is working as an environmental planner.

Today, he's on the executive of Toastmasters and mentors new members.

While having the confidence to speak out is a sometimes necessary skill in his job, being able to give effective feedback to others is one he uses daily in the multidisciplinary team he works with.

Lindsay Wright, of Gore, is among the Toastmasters elite. He's a member of Oyster Orators, who practise the high-wire equivalent of public speaking with no safety net, by actively seeking out hostile environments, where speakers must overcome the added distraction of an open forum.

Which brings us back to me, talking for two minutes off the cuff about a vinyl record, standing in front of lots of people - well, certainly more than 10 people, maybe 20.

Like I said - lots.

I've given up staring at my feet in favour of a possum in headlights demeanour.

They're very kind, about my unqualified opinion of Cat Stevens, in particular, and obsolete technologies in general, until I escape on to the more familiar ground of questioner.

They're here to learn and teach in equal measures, and that could well be the fundamental reason for Toastmasters' 90-year success.

According to the relatively new science of positive psychology, the best way to solve a problem is to help someone else with the same problem.

Neat trick.


March is Toastmasters International Awareness fortnight. Southern Toastmasters will be speaking out this month as the international organisation enters its 90th year.

The first club "to afford practice and training in the art of public speaking and in presiding over meetings, and to promote sociability and good fellowship among its members" was formed in October 1924, when a group of men met in a YMCA basement in California.

Today, Toastmasters has 300,000 members in 13,500 clubs in 116 countries. The first of New Zealand's 250 clubs was formed in Dunedin in 1962.

Every club has its own personality – some meet weekly, some fortnightly, some monthly – yet all follow the same programme of success.

Of the 5044 Kiwi toastmasters, just over half are women, one-quarter are under 34 and three-quarters are tertiary qualified. Their average annual income is $55,000 to $74,000 and nearly one-third of them earn more than $100,000 a year.

Their day jobs are everything from Cabinet ministers to mayors, chief executives to plumbers.

New Zealanders have twice won the International Toastmaster of the Year title. Everyone starts out with competent communicator modules and can then choose to move on to more advanced subjects like how to handle a hostile audience or media interview.

Southern Toastmasters meet: Wanaka: 7.15pm to 8.45pm on alternate Thursdays. Queenstown: On alternating Tuesday evenings and Wednesday mornings. Gore: 7.30pm to 9.30pm on alternate Mondays. Invercargill: 7.30pm to 9.30pm on alternate Mondays; 7.30pm to 8.30pm every Tuesday; 7am to 8am every Wednesday; 5.30pm to 6.30pm every Thursday; For experienced Toastmasters, Oyster Orators meet from 7.30pm to 9.30pm on one Tuesday each month.

The Southland Times