Archive for the ‘Toastmasters’ Category

StretchYou want to stretch yourself in your goals. If you already know you can accomplish it without much effort, that’s not growing. Sure, there are some things we need to do that are well within our reach. For instance, most people can write out a basic budget. That’s not a stretch. Sticking to that budget, now there’s the real stretch. The idea is to push yourself, to believe you can do more. You want your goals to be attainable, but you don’t want them all to be too easy. I did say “all.” There is something to be said for an “easy win” that gives you confidence. However, if you’re only going after “easy wins,” you’re not growing. Goals, as a whole, should grow you.

One of my goals is to be able to take very technical subjects and make them reachable to a non-technical audience. I have a role model in mind: Dr. Richard Feynman. Dr. Feynman was a legend in physics, especially in cutting edge areas. As a result, he didn’t teach undergrads until they needed him to “spruce up” the instruction being provided. That led to The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which are an absolutely awesome resource. Or take QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. This is a graduate level topic. What Feynman did was develop four lectures given to a lay audience, ones without formal backgrounds in physics at all, and explain Quantum Electro Dynamics (QED) to them on their terms. He was successful. The book is an adaptation of those lectures. This is the same guy who demonstrated the Challenger O-ring failure by putting them in ice water and showing they weren’t able to do the job at cold temperatures, thus leading to the explosion.

As a result, the last two weeks at Toastmasters I’ve given talks on coyote encroachment into South Carolina and the Higgs boson. Toastmasters talks are short. The first was 5-7 minutes and the second was 6-8 minutes. These are complex subjects. However, I want to develop the ability to take such a big topic and drill it down to its essentials with examples that make sense for someone who doesn’t have the full technical training. I think this is an important skill to develop. Last week was more successful than this week. My evaluator told me that he felt like it was a bigger topic, that I had more to say and that’s true, I did. However, I got the gist out in ways they could understand and also explained why it was an issue to the audience. Today was a harder challenge. The Higgs boson has a lot that goes with it. A lot of the feedback was positive, but I needed more visuals and I probably needed to narrow my focus. I tried to frame it too big.

That’s okay. That’s the kind of feedback I need in order to develop the skill I want. I can only get that feedback by pushing towards the goal. It’s not going to be an easy one. It’s going to require me to stretch. However, in that stretching I will grow. That’s what I want. That’s what you should want, too. Pick the bulk of your goals to stretch you. Make them ones where you have to push yourself to achieve them. An easy win to start or sustain motivation is fine. But a life of easy wins is an easy life and that means you don’t grow.

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Vacation Feeling | VakantiegevoelHere were the Table Topics questions I used for our meeting today. If you’re not familiar with Toastmasters, it’s a great professional development organization and most clubs’ meetings are a lot of fun. Ours are. Table topics allow for impromptu speaking opportunities so member are better able to respond and interact to questions they haven’t had time to prepare for.

Question #1:

Because of a lack of funds, your family has planned to do a “staycation” this summer. What will you do in and and around the area for a 2 week vacation?

Question #2:

Your closest friends have called you up with a challenge: to scale Mount Everest in late August. If money and time off are not issues, are you in or out? Why or why not?

Question #3:

Pick a US state you’ve never been to. Why would that state make a good vacation for you and what would you do while you were there?

Question #4:

A long lost uncle you never knew about has died. He has left you US$1 million, but there’s a catch. You must spend it all on a vacation to be taken by June 30. What is your vacation like and how will you spend the whole million?


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presentation skillsI’ve mentioned before about the Toastmasters organization, which is made up of local clubs and a hierarchy thereof. Toastmasters is all about personal professional development. There are two basic tracks to work on:

  • Becoming a better speaker.
  • Becoming a better leader.

Participating in a club develops both aspects. When you are the Toastmaster of the Day (TMOD), you have to get the meeting together ahead of time, which means coming up with a theme for the meeting, coordinating roles, gathering introductions, and making sure everyone knows what’s going on before the meeting starts. Once the meeting has begun, you run the show. Toastmasters meetings are supposed to have an agenda and time is something that should be carefully watched. This sometimes means having to keep the meeting moving in gentle, but instructive ways. This is just one example of how Toastmasters develops leadership.

Toastmasters is more well known for helping with public speaking. There are plenty of tales of how folks who were terrified of speaking overcame that fear and became accomplished speakers. I’ve seen that example in my own club. I can think of a particular gentleman who had to give a short technical presentation to our customers years ago. He froze up. It was extremely painful to watch. However, after participating in Toastmasters for a couple of years, he came into his own with regards to public speaking. About three years after that first event, he had to give another presentation to the same audience. He opened with a funny joke and proceeded to give an excellent overview of an initiative we were undertaking. That’s what helped me see the value in Toastmasters and it is one of the reasons I ultimately joined.

But Toastmasters isn’t just for those who don’t speak well. It’s also for accomplished speakers. For instance, yesterday I gave a speech from one of the Advanced Communications manuals, Speaking to Inform. Each speech is a project where you work on several things. Here were the objectives I was given for this particular project:

  • Select new and useful information for presentation to the audience.
  • Organize the information for easy understandability and retention.
  • Present the information in a way that will help motivate the audience to learn.

And I was supposed to do this in a speech that was between five and seven minutes in length. Great objectives, a set time limit, but that’s not all. An important aspect of Toastmasters is the evaluation. The evaluation serves two purposes. The first is to give an evaluation of the speech so a speaker can improve. Second, to give another person a chance to speak in public, which an evaluator must do. Here are some of the questions that the evaluator had to answer with respect to this project:

  • How effectively did the speech opening capture and hold your attention?
  • How comfortable and familiar did the speaker appear to be with his/her material?
  • What was the organizational structure of the speech?
  • How did the speaker encourage the audience to learn?
  • What could the speaker have done to make the talk more effective?
  • What would you say is the speaker’s strongest asset in informative speaking?

Now if you’ve seen the blog posts complaining about the lack of information provided in presentation feedback, this is just the opposite. Granted, there is only one evaluator per speaker, but the evaluator has an important job. In addition, Toastmasters provides a mechanism for anyone who attended the meeting to provide feedback to the speaker, even anonymously, through tear-off sheets. Usually such feedback isn’t anonymous, because the members of a Toastmasters club are supposed to be there to help each other grow. Being forthright is part of that process.

Even if you’re an accomplished speaker, consider checking Toastmasters out. There are plenty of clubs around the world. One aspect of Toastmasters I didn’t cover is that clubs are supposed to be fun. For instance, this past meeting’s theme was on April Fool’s jokes. Introductions mentioned them, and the TMOD had plenty of informative and funny facts about April Fool’s Day and memorable April Fool’s Day pranks, like this one by Burger King from 1998.

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I just recently finished reading Presentation Zen, which talks a lot about slide design in addition to just the art of presenting well. There are a few things I noted that I needed to do a better job of:

  • Put key information in the areas which the eyes naturally fall.
  • Divide the slide into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Where the lines cross, those are the areas that the eyes naturally fall.
  • Try to use images, but if you can, use a whole background that relates to what you’re talking about.
  • Try to minimize the text and use color and font to draw emphasis to what you want the reader to see.
  • Asymmetric layouts can draw focus to your points.
  • Make effective use of white space.

One of the things I learned a long time ago is that learning something new is great. However, learning is not the same as doing. If I want to be able to do what I learned, I have to practice it. Also, the longer the time between when I learned something and the first time I put it into practice, the less well I remember what I learned. So if I want something to stick, I need to try and use it very quickly after I learned it, preferably multiple times to work through it.

I didn’t have a presentation to put together, but I did need to put up an advertisement for my organization’s Toastmasters club. Our meetings are always open to those within the organization but there are a couple of times a year where we do a bit more than a normal meeting to draw folks in so they can see what we’re about. The December meeting is just one such event where we also offer food, since we meet at lunch time. There were a few things I wanted to communicate in the ad:

  • Who we are.
  • When the meeting is.
  • Where the meeting is.
  • Who is invited.
  • The fact that we have fun.
  • We also build relationships.
  • We’re also providing food.

So here’s the finished product. I know I still have a lot of practice to master some of the points mentioned in Presentation Zen, but I wanted to try and use some of them as soon as possible so they would become developed skills, instead of being lost. I still need to do some more practice just to reinforce these lessons in my head. That’s not mastery, it’s just the initial steps of proficiency, but you don’t start as a master.


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fallAll of these are with a fall theme:

Question #1:

You walk out your front door to enjoy a beautiful fall day. Your yard doesn’t have trees but it’s now covered in leaves that weren’t there yesterday. Your neighbor’s yard is covered trees and was, as of last night, covered in leaves. Now it isn’t. And you distinctly remember hearing a leaf blower going this morning. You see your neighbor lounging on his porch, obviously enjoy the sight of his now leaf-less yard. What do you do?

Question #2:

You’ve got excellent football tickets for your favorite team playing at home. Those cost you plenty. But then a relatively close family member or friend schedules a wedding… right in the middle of the football game. The wedding ceremony is near the stadium and should be short. What do you do?

Question #3:

It’s the fall and you have a week to go enjoy a vacation. You have the money set aside and it’s supposed to be beautiful fall weather in the locations you are considering. Speaking of which, your choice is between the mountains, the beach, and New York City. Which do you choose and why?

Question #4:

The fall weather has caused you to get sick and all you want to do is wallow at home in your misery. Then your best friends gives you a call at 5 AM! He or she wants to spend the rest of the day with you out and about. Your friend promises that the day will be action-packed and fun. You are not contagious. You now wish you were, but you aren’t. What do you say to your friend?


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In the September 2010 issue of Toastmaster magazine there’s a great article by Chris Witt (blog) entitled Not All Ideas Are Created Equal. Here is the gist of what it has to say with my own take on the points Mr. Witt has made:

Focus on one idea

If you have more ideas, great! Save them for another speech (or blog post/article). Focus on the one idea you want to communicate to your audience. You want to ensure your audience gets your idea. And you want it to be as compelling as possible. If you’re writing on a technical topic, make sure what you’re trying to get across focuses on that single topic.

This is a problem I’ve struggled with in the past. I want to communicate too many things. It’s hard enough to get one idea across. So just focus on getting that one idea to your audience.

Make that idea clear

This should be obvious, but a lot of us miss this point. If you get up there and talk or if you write and there’s no clarity, then your idea doesn’t come across. That defeats the whole purpose of what you’re striving to do. So you need to make sure that you get the idea across clearly. In order to do that you must first be sure that you are clear on what that idea is. If it’s not clear to you, it’s not going to be clear to your audience.

When communicating that idea, use clear, plain language. Hiding behind jargon runs counter to your purpose. We’ve all joked about “buzzword bingo” and that’s something you want to avoid. Dr. Richard Feynman was renowned not only for his expertise in physics, but also for his ability to take complex topics and explain them in a way ordinary people could understand. This is what is to be aimed for: the clear communication of the idea. Remember your audience and choose your words careful to reach them.

Organize what you have to say

It’s easy to just sit down and start writing. Grab a dictionary and write one word. Flip a few pages and write another word. Flip a few more and another. There, you’ve sat down and you’ve started writing, right? Not at all. All you’ve done is copy a few words out of the dictionary and they probably make no sense together.

You want to make sure that as you communicate your idea, that you aren’t doing the same thing, only you are using phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Make sure your idea is developed in an orderly way. Ensure the audience can follow along and that your building on your idea throughout. Tangents and “rabbit trails” should be avoided. One of the things I hate to see in writing is a sidebar that is only loosely related to the topic being covered. Yes, I’ve been guilty of doing this in my own writing and it makes me cringe when I see my own failings in print. Stay on topic, ensure it’s organized, and work to develop your idea logically.

Back it up

If you are working on an idea and not a topic like, “How do I change a flat tire,” then you want to make sure that as you present the idea, you give evidence supporting it. For instance, when I wrote an essay back in the 9th grade against the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty, I did so having done an extensive amount of research. The INF arsenal gave us punch even in a sudden invasion of West Germany without having to launch ICBMs from US soil. It seemed really foolish to get rid of this defensive measure. So I spent the paper discussing force distribution in Europe, ranges and numbers of the weapon systems and the situations where we would employ them, and the lack of anything similar to provide equivalent capabilities. All of this went to support my position that we should not sign the INF treaty.

You need to do the same sort of thing with your idea. As you develop it, you need to provide facts and reasons why your idea is sound. You need to give your audience reason to agree with your idea. Here you are looking for credible, verifiable sources. Now those facts and reasons don’t have to be as hard and fast as what I used in my position paper. They could be stories and anecdotes. One of the things Al Gore tried to use in his failed presidential campaign was anecdotal stories. Why was this one of his strategies? Stories people can identify with are seen as evidence for your idea. This strategy has worked in the past. And it works now. We typically love good stories. Now what you use is up to you. Make sure it fits the idea you’re trying to convey and the audience you’re trying to reach. If you’re trying to defend a graduate dissertation, stories won’t cut it. If you’re trying to talk to a bunch of children, detailed facts with pie charts and other business type notes won’t either.

Remember that these need to be verifiable. One of the things that burned Gore was that as the media started to check into his stories, they were able to find and prove that at least some of them were either stretched greatly or flat-out made up. As a result, Gore’s strategy backfired, especially as Bush found ways to convey his ideas to his audience, the American people, better than his opponent.

You better be interested in your idea

I remember my senior year at The Citadel I was given a presentation on research done by another physics major. I did the best that I could and it was a worthy topic that I understood, but I don’t feel that I did a very good job. Why not? Because it wasn’t research I was interested in. I agreed to give it because my fellow physics major had a conflict and couldn’t present the paper he had worked on.

If you are interested and passionate about your idea, it will show. One of the things that characterizes the TED talks is that the speakers are very passionate about their ideas. That’s what makes most of the presentations compelling. If you aren’t interested in your idea, folks will begin to sense it. And then they will ask, “If he doesn’t care, why should I?” Then it doesn’t matter how good an idea is, you’ve lost them. Be interested in it and find a way to convey that interest. What about the idea appeals to you? What makes it special to you? Bring that out.

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Being the Toastmaster over a Toastmasters meeting can be a daunting experience, especially the first couple of times you do it. One of the things a good Toastmaster does is hit the introductions for each person with a role. Typically you gather these from each person and hopefully they fit the theme you’ve selected for the meeting. Now since I’m part of an organization’s private Toastmasters club, we typically handle the discussion of theme, confirmation of roles, and getting the introductions together through email. That may be the case for you, or perhaps everyone hands you a separate slip of paper with their intro on it. If you’re like my case, it’s tempting to just print out all those emails so you have the introductions ready to go, but the problem with this approach is now you’re faced with a bunch of paper that can easily get disorganized and out of order. This can just increase the nervousness one feels as the Toastmaster. If you have the option, don’t do this.

A better approach, one that was taught to me by my Toastmasters mentor, is to take your Toastmasters meeting agenda and using your favorite word processing program or text editor, go ahead and put down the roles and the names of the people in those roles in the order you would present them. Then, as the introductions come in, copy those introductions into your document right after the role/name (make sure to save frequently). When you do so, you can also wordsmith the introductions to flow for you. So a final result might look like:

Joke Master – Jane White:

Kinship….when Jane White thinks of ….

Grammarian – Earl Morris:

Timer – Mark Doe:

When he was in college, Mark Doe…

Speaker #1 – John Smith:

John Smith was born …

You get the idea. Now, if you look at my example, you’ll notice that Earl’s introduction is missing. Earl didn’t get it to me in time. So what then? There are two different approaches, both of which I took at the latest meeting:

  • If you know the person well, you can talk about him or her from a personal perspective. In the case of Earl, I knew him for a couple of years before he came to the club. So I gave a brief introduction on how we met (which related to the theme) and how it was a distinct pleasure to be in the same Toastmasters club with him. You can either write this ahead of time (suggested) or do it off the cuff (a measure of last resort).
  • If you don’t the person well enough to do the introduction, talk to him or her before the start of the meeting. If they have to explain their role, like with the Timer or the Grammarian, this would be perfect to pitch the introduction to them to complete. But this requires coordination, which is the reason for having the talk before the meeting begins.

So what, if despite your best efforts, you don’t have the introductions early enough to prepare the document? My suggestion here is to keep them sorted where you sit. When you go up to address the club, only carry the introduction(s) you must have for the next event. At most that should be two or three. That’s far better than coming to the front with ten sheets of paper and trying not to fumble them.


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