Several years ago when I gave my first public speech to a crowd of 650 people, I recorded it and gave it to my business coach, a very gifted public speaker, to evaluate how I performed and what I could do better. After I sent it to him, a few months went by before I got any feedback. His response: “Join Toastmasters.”
Now, I wasn’t sure how to take that answer. He could have told me to join Toastmasters, an international group that helps individuals polish their speaking skills, because he thought I was awful and needed help, or he advised me to join Toastmasters because he thought I had potential.
In either case, I followed his advice, and joined the organization.
Toastmasters events contain several roles for participants to practice the art of speaking. More importantly, Toastmasters events are great for learning how to become better listeners, a goal we should all seek to achieve. After all, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Among the Toastmasters roles are these:
- The Grammarian: The Grammarian pays attention to the proper and improper use of the English language. During the latter part of meetings, the Grammarian is asked to give a report on everyone who spoke and how they did.
- The Gruntmaster: The Gruntmaster’s role is to listen for all the “ahs,” “ums,” “you knows,” and other vocal tics and fillers. At the end of the meeting, the Gruntmaster is asked to give a report as to how many tics each speaker uttered.
- The Table Topics Master: The Table Topics Master comes to the meeting with a theme and a set of questions he or she will ask related to that theme. No one knows what is going to be asked of whom. Participants may be put in a situation like ones you may occasionally find yourself in at a social event, when someone engages the group in a conversation but you are left standing there speechless or afraid to open your mouth because you know nothing about the topic and may say something that doesn’t make sense. The Table Topics Master helps participants think quickly on their feet and trains them to be able to speak for a minimum of 90 seconds on any impromptu topic.
- The Evaluator: Evaluators are assigned to identify the objective of the speeches and determine whether the speakers met their objectives. The objective could be to persuade or to inspire, and the evaluator focuses on things like eye contact, body language, pregnant pauses, modulation of the speaker’s voice, or other movements and actions that impact the audience’s interpretation of the speech. At the end of the speeches, the evaluator must give his estimation. The evaluator is supposed to look for positives, make a suggestion or two, and then finish with a positive.
So why am I telling you about the Toastmaster roles? The answer: Because each of these roles requires participants to watch and listen carefully.
This is where most people fail in life and in business. We often fail to be in the moment and listen. In a conversation, most of us are so anxious to say our piece that we don’t take the time to hear what is being said. People know whether or not others are paying attention to them when they speak. When we listen to people, we show them we care.
Being an evaluator at Toastmasters, has helped me as a parent and as a business owner. It has also helped me embrace the idea of constructive criticism when given to me. In life and at work, people often gravitate to the negatives. What’s wrong, we ask. At times, when I ask one of my employees or one my children if I can speak with them, their first thought is “What did I do wrong?”
Children, in particular, are always looking for affirmation and acknowledgement. When my children do something — whether it is a chore at home or a project at school — I try to give them the Toastmasters’ evaluation, so to speak. I offer a few positive comments about what they did, make a suggestion as to what could be done better or differently, and finish with an overall positive comment. Besides training me to be a better and more approachable parent, it makes them feel less anxious about having a conversation, and more comfortable discussing what is going on in their lives.
I also love using the evaluation process in my business, especially when I go on a listing appointment. For instance, while walking through a home, I take notes of the positives and negatives of a house. When finished, I sit down with my clients to talk about their goals and concerns. At some point during the evaluation, we discuss how to market the house and what needs to be done to get the home in the optimal condition for sale. When the appointment is just about over I usually finish with an overall assessment of our meeting. It might sound something like this: “Mr. and Mrs. Seller, your house has a really nice flow to it and is really spacious. I love the hardwood floors and the gorgeous granite counter tops. Backing up to the woods like your house does offers tons of privacy, and people love privacy. If I could make a suggestion or two, you might want to steam clean the carpets prior to listing the house and you should probably do some landscaping out front. Curb appeal is extremely important when a buyer pulls up. A buyer wants to have a warm or positive feeling about the house, before opening the front door. Overall, you have a very attractive house in a great location, and I would be honored to help you sell your home.” The Toastmasters version: A few positive comments at the outset, a couple constructive suggestions, and a positive comment at the finish.
When I use this approach, homeowners feels better about the journey they are about to embark on — the process of selling their house. They feel confident with me as their agent.
Toastmasters has also prepared me for any series of questions that may come up in a discussion about a possible purchase or sale of a home. In real estate, dozens, even hundreds, of questions can come up. Some questions are common, others are unique. The point is it’s important to enter a meeting prepared to answer questions on the spur of the moment. That doesn’t mean making up answers. It means being prepared to know how to answer.
To bring it full circle, Toastmasters is a forum that can help anyone, whether you’re a salesperson, a stay-at-home husband or wife, a business owner, or an employee. It has helped me grow professionally and personally. I’ve become a better speaker and more so a better listener because of Toastmasters. Most importantly, Toastmasters has given me the confidence to speak in front of any size audience and it has helped relieve any anxiety prior to giving a speech or having a conversation. I highly recommend you find a Toastmasters if you wish to improve your skills as a speaker and a listener.