Toastmasters as a Community of Practice

Toastmasters is an old fashioned, bureaucratic, pedagogically questionable public speaking club and I love it! I have been a card carrying club member for over ten years. Why? The people and their stories. The format of the flagship Competent Communicator ‘course’ asks participants to write ten short speeches about anything which they deliver in front of more experienced club members who give them feedback.

The variety of different types of speech is amazing, often participants delve deeply’ into personal stories and reflections which I frequently find humbling and insightful to listen to. This is a community that has significantly changed my practice and I would encourage critics to see it in that light. There are thousands of clubs each with their own unique flavour, I have met professional sportspeople, CEOs, comedians, entrepreneurs, politicians and a practising witch!

I see Toastmasters as a community of practice that focuses on public speaking, a safe space to try out new ideas on a diverse group of people. Much of the criticism of the club structure is that you are not evaluated by professional public speakers but I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. You can do a different professional public speaking course and then practise the skills you learn at Toastmasters over the course of a year, after all as Goethe said:

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Anyone can start a club, I have started two corporate clubs which raised my profile across the companies and helped me meet lots of new people who I wouldn’t have met in the natural course of my work. Lunch and learn, working out loud and action learning sets have all got quite trendy over the last few years so managers are usually happy to support your initiative.

Why is it so successful?

Toastmasters enables social learning by giving participants the opportunity to observe, imitate and model the behaviour of good speakers. Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory explains that these are key processes in the way we learn.

Etienne Wenger is another prominent name in social learning and recommends the following actions for building successful communities of practice. Toastmasters does most of them pretty well:

  1. Design the community to evolve naturally
    There is no start or end date at Toastmasters and you don’t have to be at every single session. Participants deliver as and when they are ready and can take on different roles within the group at each session. I advertise my clubs in the corporate newsletters and intranets meaning there is a steady flow of new joiners so the club evolves based on people’s commitments.
  2. Create opportunities for open dialog within and with outside perspectives
    Toastmasters encourages guests to come to their clubs firstly to encourage new joiners but also to get outside perspectives from other clubs. I have visited clubs across the world while travelling to see how they do it and they always ask me to give feedback as part of the process.
  3. Welcome and allow different levels of participation
    Not everyone wants to do the ten speeches and that is accepted. There are lots of other roles and ways to participate like evaluating other people’s speeches or impromptu speaking exercises.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces
    Many of my favourite clubs are in function rooms at bars and pubs, after the meetings finish they move into the bar for less formal discussions in smaller groups
  5. Focus on the value of the community
    One of my club members mentioned that she had added a Toastmaster impromptu speaking exercise to one of her freelance course offerings which prompted another member to ask for help developing some exercises for his Scout troop.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement
    Most clubs offer an element of formal speeches and evaluations combined with a random impromptu speaking exercise which all attendees can participate if they want to.
  7. Find and nurture a regular rhythm for the community

How can it be better?

Toastmasters does many things very well but it feels stuck in a bygone era, I can count the times I have given a toast or an after dinner speech on the fingers of one hand yet that is the namesake skill developed by the organisation. Social spaces have changed and Julian Stodd offers a mindset for designing learning in the Social Age:

  1. the CONTEXT for learning, 
  2. how we DEMONSTRATE key principles, 
  3. provide space for EXPLORATION to play with the learning,
  4. create spaces for REFLECTION
  5. have tools for ASSESSMENT 
  6. provide FOOTSTEPS for ongoing performance support

I think Toastmasters does the first three really well but could leverage technology better to deliver the last 3 better.


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