Category Archives: Learning

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.


Modern mentorship

Last year I started freelancing and for the first time in my professional career, I asked for help by doing a formal virtual mentorship program with the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). The structure of the program was based on the work of mentorship guru David Clutterbuck and I would strongly recommend his short book ‘Making the most of Developmental mentoring‘ to anyone considering mentoring or being mentored. He says a developmental mentor:

  • Has wisdom and knowledge, but uses them less to impart knowledge than to help the mentee become courageous and wise
  • Is an expert only in the sense of knowing the limits and narrowness of their knowledge. (An expert is someone whose existing knowledge hinders their new learning)

A mentor’s place in your network

Harold Jarche’s PKM model divides our people networks into 3 groups as shown below. For me mentors in formal programs like the one I participated in fall into the Communities of Practice group but they can also be in the Work Teams or Social Networks group.

Developing Work Team Mentors

Work teams are grouped together in order to get something specific done and are normally structured and hierarchical like a customer success team.

Whenever I work somewhere I cultivate good relationships with the following types of people to collaborate with in order to get that specific thing done:

  • Influencers
  • Taskmasters
  • Technical wizards
  • Role models
  • Connectors
  • Advocates
  • Realists

I look for mutual interests on and off the project and check in with them from time to time. Often they become friends and sometimes I stay in touch after I leave the company and they become part of my Community of Practice or Social Network.

However, they do not have to be friends they just want you to succeed and are happy to assist in some small or large way. The trick is to spot those people and figure out a good way of working with them.

Community of Practice Mentors

A community of practice is a group of people with whom you cooperate to change your working practices. It is a safe place where you can explore ideas and problems that have come from your work teams and social networks.

The mentorship program I attended was 12 weeks long and we met every 2 weeks, during which time I built my website, got my first customer and explored many different ways of working that I would never have considered before. We are still in touch and I consider him a valuable member of my community of practice.

A useful technique from David Clutterbuck that my mentor used to help me resolve issues was using questions from different perspectives:

  • A stepping in perspective is a question looking at the issue from my perspective
  • A stepping out perspective is a question looking at the issue from other peoples perspective

The idea is to move the conversation between the different quadrants – it doesn’t have to be in any particular order, here is an example of how one of my conversations went:

  • When I joined the mentorship program I was worried about getting my first customer. Looking at the diagram above I was in the top right quadrant when I explained this to my mentor – emotional and from my perspective (Emotional, Stepping In)

  • His questions acknowledged my fears from the same perspective (Emotional, Stepping In)

  • His questions then moved to how my lack of customers looked to potential customers (Emotional, Stepping Out)

  • What would my customers ‘to be’ expect to see from a freelancer they wanted to employ (Rational, Stepping Out)

  • What could I do to make this happen (Rational, Stepping In)

Mentorship is a conversation and some people like to talk a lot some less so, I am working towards less formal mentorships as not everyone has the time or inclination to dedicate 12 weeks to my career. That said a lot of lessons can be learned from formal mentorship into less formal co-operative mentorships.

Social Network Mentors

Through the years many people have helped me and it has often been through meeting up in pubs or coffee shops and discussing issues. This has several disadvantages:

  • You only network with people like you like you
  • Limited by geography
  • A tendency towards alcoholism

Social media offers unprecedented access to people but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This article has some advice about how to reach out:


There are many different ways to mentor and be mentored. I liked the formal program but well aware that it may not be for everyone. In today’s complex world this ancient Greek idea is needed more than ever but for me will take the form of multiple mentors working in a networked and collaborative way.

Personal knowledge management

I started actively managing my personal knowledge a few years ago inadvertently. I wanted to make my presentations and small talk more engaging so I created a joke database.

Getting started

I used the note-taking app Evernote which makes it easy to categorise the jokes I hear or find. I added the tag ‘Professions’ to the joke below and have used it often when presenting to or meeting engineers.

To an optimist the glass is half full, to the pessimist half empty. To the engineer it is twice as big as it needs to be

The practice of regularly reading through the jokes means I remember them better and think about how to adapt them to other situations. The above joke works for scientists and software programmers for example.

As time has gone by I started adding other facts, figures and content around general themes which everyone can relate to and which I can adapt for the situation. Including things like:

  • Work
  • Relationships
  • Happiness
  • Status
  • Health
  • Success / Failure

My job means I often need to write a speech, presentation or article on short notice. My first step is to search the relevant tags in Evernote which gives me some entertaining and interesting things to sprinkle through the content. As Mark Twain (possibly) remarked it takes more than three weeks to prepare a decent impromptu speech.

Personal Knowledge Mastery

I have recently taken PKM to the next level by doing Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Mastery workshop.

Analysing my current practice through the lens of his Seek, Sense, Share framework I realised I am really only regurgitating what other people think and say without deeply understanding it or adding any real value to it. While I am going in the right direction I am definitely missing a trick or two, to say the least. I am a consumer but not a creator content which is where I want to be. Here are some amazing examples of blogs I have been mining which show the idea perfectly: – great for developing personal knowledge management practice – beautiful, thoughtful views of the human condition from an exceptionally well-read blogger. Be ready to spend an afternoon here following the links – a blog about applying mental models to think in a more effective way

Next steps

Seek – To paraphrase Seth Godin you can learn almost anything but you can’t learn everything. I am focusing my knowledge-seeking on expanding my circle of competence more slowly but consistently.

Sense – I have often seen knowledge as a shiny new thing to show off and then forget about for the most part. I am concentrating on understanding the information I find more deeply and looking for relationships with other things I have learnt.

Share – It feels like I am now using social media with my shoes on the right feet so to speak before when I shared things I felt uncomfortable because I was either regurgitating someone else’s work, trying to look clever or looking for approval. Now I aim to add value with anything I share using the internet as it should be rather than how we are encouraged to by the algorithms.

More generally I hope to extend my brain by building a smart network of thoughtful people who value what I do and are happy to help me if I need it.

In conclusion I love this quote from ‘A technique for producing ideas’ by James Webb Young:

If you ask me why I am willing to give away the valuable formula of this discovery I will confide to you that experience has taught me two things about it: First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it. Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it. Thus I broadcast this formula with no real fear of glutting the market in which I make my living.

‘A technique for producing ideas’ by James Webb Young

Instructor-led training is dead! Long live virtual instructor-led training?

As a face to face trainer for the last 10 years I have been watching with alarm the ever-growing body of evidence indicating that instructor led training is expensive, boring, and ineffective. This message has not reached many of my clients and it even seems to be having a bit of a resurgence with the rise in popularity of Zoom and like.

One company I worked with had been leveraging the disadvantages of a 6-hour instructor-led training course by delivering the same content virtually with no changes. Worse still the recording was offered as video ‘learning’ to unwary new starters who had to pretend that they had sat through the whole 6-hour recording as part of their onboarding ‘experience’.

Virtual instructor-led training (VILT) is a useful medium that has been around for a long time but now because of social distancing, it is gaining the widespread acceptance it deserves. McLuhans’ laws of media state that a new medium:

Extends – a human property

Obsolesces – the previous medium and may turn it into a luxury

Retrieves – a much older medium

Reverses – its properties when pushed to its limits

Virtual instructor-led training is often misused, and we risk losing public support for it when social distancing is eased. The short-term advantages of the technology are easy to see but by using the tetrad to analyse the other effects we can mitigate some of the less favourable long-term effects.

Technology lives and dies by public perception of it rather than how good or pedagogically sound it is. Looking at instructor-led training from the learners’ perspective it is rarely the 6 hours away from their job that they relish about the experience but the:

  1. Networking
  2. Certification
  3. Investment of the company in you as a person
  4. Time to explore and reflect

All of these can be achieved without instructor led training of any sort! However, the perception that an instructor led element is required persists. Virtual instructor led training offers a low cost, easily accessible, potentially more environmentally friendly way to offer the option for people that want / need it. Long live virtual instructor led training!


Imamura, E (1987). In Conventional and nonconventional schooling: a comparison of pupil performance in rural schools and schools of the air. University of Western Australia

Laws of Media Marshall and Eric McLuhan