December 5

How Toastmasters almost ruined my presentation


This may offend some Toastmasters out there, but Toastmasters almost ruined my presentation.  And it could ruin yours too.  Now before you send the Grand Toastmaster after me, hear me out.

I was a card-carrying member of Toastmasters for over a year and value much of that experience.  I joined prior to launching my first book as I needed a live (and captive) audience to practice new material on.  My fellow Toastmasters and I would give each other our undivided attention and feedback. While the feedback could vary greatly, I looked for consistent themes that resonated with me.

Some of that feedback even helped shape a presentation I still use today.

So how did Toastmasters almost ruin my presentation?

Toastmasters encourages a dramatized style of speaking that Toastmaster and former club president Al Pittampalli calls “unsuitable for most real-world contexts.” (You can read his article, “Toastmasters has a problem it desperately needs to address” here)

Perhaps you’ve seen the Toastmaster’s style in action.  The speaker places a heavy focus on vocal inflection, dramatic facial expressions, movement and gestures.  “The bigger, the better,” seems to be the unspoken rule.  These heightened mannerisms are often perfectly timed and choreographed, yet seem oddly disconnected from any real thought or emotion.

As a professional actor, I believe in the power of leveraging your voice, body and stage for greater impact.  However the studied external application of mannerisms and movements — without the necessary internal motivation – lacks authenticity and spontaneity.  It often results in a theatrical delivery that would get you kicked out of community theater.

I noticed this style immediately in my fellow Toastmasters.

It frustrated me that the more “unreal” each speaker’s mannerisms were, the more praise heaped upon them.  While my feedback to others usually included suggestions such as, “I’d like to see more of your personality” or “Less is more on the gestures,” the much louder collective voice of Toastmasters usually won out.  But I persevered, determined to offer a balanced and realistic view.

And then, I noticed it happening to me.

I was halfway through my speech one afternoon before I realized my focus was entirely on matching my gestures to certain words, modulating my voice and timing my pauses.  Busy checking all the boxes in my head, I was not present for my audience and completely detached from what I was saying and why I was saying it.

I left Toastmasters shortly after that experience.

Should you avoid all theatrics in your presentation or speech?

Of course not. Drama can be an effective tool in speeches and presentations when used sparingly and purposefully.  However drama quickly becomes melodrama without inner motivation and balance.  The best actors are those that don’t look like they’re acting.

A truly great performance—whether on the business stage or on the Broadway stage — comes from within.

You can’t simply memorize a script, slap on some gestures, expressions and vocal stylings and expect your audience to buy what you’re selling.

Great actors and great speakers internalize their material, allowing it to meld with their own personality, feelings and experience. They make sure their instrument is warmed up and loose so they can get out of their comfort zone, but express themselves naturally in a way that suits their own style.  Lastly, great presenters are vulnerable.  They are fully present and responsive to their audience – something that is impossible to do if you are rigidly sticking to prescribed vocal tricks and movements.

Work from the Inside Out.

External fixes alone will not make you a great actor or a great speaker. And that’s the problem I have with Toastmasters.  It promotes an “outside in” style that just doesn’t ring true with audiences outside of the meetings.

Don’t get me wrong.  We learn many things from the outside in.  But if those learnings never get beneath the surface, you have merely created a shell to hide behind.  A shell that makes it difficult for an audience to connect with you, no matter how executed your gestures and pauses.

You may be surprised to find that I still encourage some presenters to try Toastmasters.  It provides needed support for people who fear public speaking, are trying to break vocal or physical habits, or, as in my case, need to practice in front of a live audience.

But for Toastmaster newbies and alum alike, I caution the need for balance and discretion.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Spend time understanding what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, and how you feel about it.
  • Go ahead and practice “larger than life” to break out of your comfort zone, but land somewhere that jives with your personality and style.
  • Look for themes in the feedback that resonate with you.

If you spend as much time learning to express yourself from the inside as you do from the outside, you may just get what you need out of Toastmasters.

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  1. Hi Julie. I think you have an important point. I can’t say that emphasis on the “overdramatic” to the exclusion of tuning into your audience was an issue/priority in my experience of Toastmasters. I did love it — I am not active right now due to some time commitment challenges, but I am so grateful for the opportunity. I do think there was rigidity about odd things — maybe it was unique to my region or club. I think Table Topics were as helpful to my speaking/relationship skills as the “big” speeches. Thanks for your piece — it got me thinking! Here’s my Toastmasters post:

    1. Paula, I agree with you on Table Topics. I think it’s an especially helpful warm-up for speakers, or anyone who needs to communicate at a high level! There is a bit of rigidity in the organization, which has some downsides (as you mentioned) but also helps to keep things consistent from club to club. Glad to provide a small “spark” for your article. I enjoyed it!

  2. I do agree with your points. I’m a Toastmaster myself, I love Toastmasters and everything I learned from its program. I do believe it helps people at many levels, and it is a great environment to be part of.
    My journey in Toastmasters led me to become a professional speaker.
    However, you need more than the Toastmasters program to become professional. It is a great starting point, I really recommend it, but the reality “out there” is different if you want to be considered a professional speaker.
    And I second what you said, it works starts from the Inside Out.
    Great article.

    1. Thanks Tulia. Congratulations on launching a professional speaking career! It sounds like Toastmasters was a great starting point for you. But I echo your experience: “the reality “out there” is different if you want to be considered a professional speaker.” All the best with your speaking career!

      1. Your article provided an interesting read and your points are well taken Julie!

        As a member for15+ years, I know Toastmasters is a great place to start being comfortable speaking and leading in a supporting environment. But at some point, you have to adapt to a style that’s authentically you. There are people who are naturally dramatic, and it works for them.

        Appreciate your perspective.

  3. Hi Julie!

    I appreciated what you have to say and agree about the excessive body movement. I believe it’s overdone in Toastmasters and in reality, would make little sense in an actual presentation away from the club. If you look at Ken Robinson’s speech on Ted Talks(the most viewed speech)he just stood in one spot. Also, the winner of one of the past International finals(I believe it was in 2017 or 2018) never budged from one spot for the whole speech yet won anyway.

    I’m almost wondering if Toastmasters is teaching the importance of body movement by overdoing it at meetings just to make a point and don’t necessarily expect you to use the same amount of movement in an actual presentation? I intend to bring that up at the next meeting.

    Just the same, as an introvert going into Toastmasters I have to say the program has done wonders as far as bringing me out of my shell. After just four months I believe I could give a speech away from the club now. It was an impossibility when I first joined.

  4. Well said! This is one of the most on-point posts about Toastmasters that I’ve ever read. It’s so true that your tone of voice and body language need to reflect what you feel. If they’re at odds (which is the norm at Toastmasters), you come across as fake. No effective speaker can get away with that.

    I was a member for several years, and tried to learn what I could from competing in contests and so on. But eventually, I pulled the plug.

    I’ve written about Toastmasters a few times too, like in this post about whether to thank your audience. (Toastmasters say not to thank people, but the 3 most-watched TED talks all end with thanks, so there must be something to it!)

      1. Yes, that’s the recency effect, and it’s why I suggest 4 stronger ways to close than saying “Thank you”. (Please see the link in my previous comment.)

        Nevertheless, the 3 most popular TED talks — with over 130 <I>million</I> views between them — all end with thanks. So it’s not such a bad way to close, and it’s certainly better than saying “Mr Toastmaster!” or “Back to you”, as many Toastmasters do.

      2. Yes, that’s the recency effect, and it’s why I suggest 4 stronger ways to close than saying “Thank you”. (Please see the link in my previous comment.)

        Nevertheless, the 3 most popular TED talks — with over 130 &amp;lt;I&amp;gt;million&amp;lt;/I&amp;gt; views between them — all end with thanks. So it’s not such a bad way to close, and it’s certainly better than saying “Mr Toastmaster!” or “Back to you”, as many Toastmasters do.

  5. Good article. I agree totally. A solution to the issue of not sounding spontaneous that I've offered to a few fellow Toastmasters is to use the method given in David A. Peoples' excellent book "Presentations Plus" 2nd edition. He suggests creating an outline or notes to guide your rehearsals while memorizing nothing except your introduction and conclusion, perhaps, and talking about whatever comes to mind each time you rehearse with your notes. Then when you give the actual speech, it becomes one more spontaneous presentation of your non-memorized speech, thereby coming across as more conversational and spontaneous.

    On a related note, I once gave a speech that I'd memorized word for word, during which I became quite nervous because I was disconnected emotionally from what I was saying. I didn't forget any words and I was able to keep saying them, but emotionally it was the equivalent of standing before an audience and reciting the listings from a phone book. I was very uncomfortable. After that, I never again memorized a speech.

    One more thing. I am annoyed when I can tell that a speech has been memorized. If I can tell that a speech has been memorized OR when someone reads a speech, in both cases it comes across as a "reading" not a speech. Of course, if some information needs to be disseminated to an audience with high precision, then it is reasonable to read that information to them.

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