Tag Archives: Toastmasters

Toastmasters fall district conference 2011

Last week end, I attended Toastmasters district 59 fall conference in Basel, Switzerland.

This bi-yearly event takes place every time in a different city among the numerous continental European countries that belong to the district (Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Germany, Danemark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway).

The main purpose of this Fall conference is to host the humorous speech contests (held in French, German and English), as well as the table topics contests (impromptu speeches) held in all three languages. These finals attract among the best speakers in continental Europe !

I arrived on Friday afternoon in Basel by train, as I took the role of chief judge for the German table topics. The conference was hosted in the Ramada Hotel in Basel: a great location for such an event !

After having briefed the judges about the rules and the ranking criteria for the contest, I attended both the German and French table topics contest, and one of the the English humorous speech contest semi-final. Finally, on Friday, the District Executive Committee Meeting (DECM) took place. This meeting gathered all Toastmasters Area, Division and District governors to present the progress made by the district towards its goals fixed at the beginning of the year.
From my perspective, the Area I supervise (F1) contributed to the general progress, as a new club was is being chartered in Stuttgart, which is excellent news for all Stuttgarters.

It was definitely an exciting experience to see how structured the success plan of the district is and also to see that it is executed in a fairly disciplined manner. All aspects of the plan were addressed : club and membership growth, educational achievements of the members, organization of the district conference and financial status. Although all people who contribute are completely benevolent, a lot of time and energy is put inside this organization.

One interesting fact is that the district has grown so big that it will be split in two in the coming years. A vote of all club president, VP education and district officers allowed the start of the procedure to check all facts and make a proposal in that sense. I personally think that the strength of this district is its diversity (especially of languages) but its size is just too big and a split would benefit the members. One of the biggest challenges of this reform is that a “border” will need to be defined to separate the two districts. As Germany provides by far most of the clubs, I fear that it may be separated, thus making a German speaking district contest less interesting. Germany also has a not-so-positive history with splitting…

On Saturday, Ted Corcoran, an Irishman, former Toastmasters International President, gave a very good keynote speech about leadership by stating ten skills leaders show (for example “take responsibility”, “be proactive”, etc.). Although these presentations may look repetitive, their core message is still important and the delivery of the one-hour speech was impeccable.

I then attended the German humorous speech contest (yes, these two things are compatible !), the English table topics contest, as well as the finals for humorous speeches. The table topic, an impromptu speech usually to answer a question, was this time very original. The table topics master gave an egg to the speaker, who had to make a one-to-two minutes speech out of it. The result was very different from speaker to speaker and it was fun to watch. The last contest was the humorous speech contest. As expected, the level of the speeches was excellent. The winner deserved her title and although some speeches were funnier than others, all participants deserved their applauds.

The organization of the conference must have been a huge work for the organizers. I contributed a bit by volunteering as a chief judge, but the task of managing this whole convention must have been a herculean task. The organization team can be proud of themselves !

For the future, from a personal perspective, I would like to contribute to the success of the district by taking over a role in the district team, for instance as Lieutenant Governor Marketing. Growth is something I am fascinated by and I would like to help extending the network of clubs all across Europe.

The next district conference will take place in Spring, in Poznan, Poland. The evaluations and International speech contest will be held there. I am confident that I will have achieved all the goals set for my Area for this Toastmasters year (June 2011-May 2012) until then. Also, I looking forward to go for the first time in Poland and to participate to the growth of Toastmasters in continental Europe !

New branding for Toastmasters

Back in August of this year, Toastmasters International introduced a complete new branding. This -much needed- initiative aimed at presenting this venerable nonprofit organization with over 13,000 clubs and more than 270,000 members in 113 countries in a new light and give it a distinctive identity.
Founded in 1924 in Santa Ana, California, this institution’s goals is to help members become better speakers and leaders. The public speaking skills are trained based on a self-paced program and the leadership skills are trained by taking over roles in the organization, either at the club, or at a higher level. I have been an enthusiastic member for four years now and already wrote on this blog an article explaining the basic principles of Toastmasters.

The organization encountered identity problems as clubs and geographical divisions were created around the world. Many clubs started to use their own logos, colors and tag lines. The District 59, for example, which comprises all western European Toastmasters clubs, invented its own motto “Connect through diversity”. Although this sentence makes sense for this particular district with so much diversity, the strength of the Toastmasters brand was diluted. Indeed, there are around 89 districts in the world, each with its own tag line !

Toastmasters International gradually lost control on its own brand and needed an energetic answer to the fragmentation of its identity across the world. Moreover, some of its communication artifacts were not representative of the current state of the organization, such as its exponential international growth.

The logo, for instance, was one of the most outmoded part of the branding. Although the globe gave a sense of the international purpose of the organization, it was centered around the American continent only.
The gavels, one is used to open the Toastmasters club meetings, were not understood from a large part of the population. Some even believed to see fists gripping the world !
Furthermore, this logo, which is an evolution of the first logo designed in the 1930’s profoundly lacked dynamics and modernity. On the other hand, it provided a sense of authority (the gavels reminding of the justice) and of tradition.

The tag line of the organization was “Become the leader and speaker you want to be“. Although it perfectly described the goals achievable through this organization, it had a major issue : its length. No one could remember exactly the sentence after having heard it for the first time.

Finally, the organization used to use a patchwork of unrelated colors, changing, at each event or in each manuals.

Toastmasters International hence decided to hire a consultancy to refresh and align the Toastmasters brand on a worldwide basis. The outcome can be seen on Toastmasters International’s website, as well as on my club’s.

A definition of a brand is an idea embodied in, among others, products, services and experiences. The brand represents the interface between us and Toastmasters. It is present on all web pages, all official documents, all flyers and promotional items. If a branding is not efficient or not focused, it loses its strength and the message of the organization weakens with it. Toastmasters hence introduced in August a new unified branding for the worldwide organization. Its goal is clear : the clubs need to align to the headquarters’s communication to give a unified and controlled member experience.

The consultancy came up with a “brand” new concept, with a distinct set of colors that are culturally neutral and are not part of any country flag in order to emphasize the international vocation of Toastmasters. Also, this color panel is distinct from any other public speaking association, thus increasing the distinction and value of TM. I think they completely succeeded in this task.

The new logo is now much less centered on the USA and looks much more modern. However, as modern as it may look, the drawback is certainly that it will be outmoded much faster than the previous, more conservative, logo. Note the use of the new color scheme.

Finally, and this is my only real complaint, the emphasis of this new branding is clearly much more important on the leadership side than on the public speaking side of Toastmasters.

For instance, the tag line was changed to “Where leaders are made“. In the elevator speech provided by Toastmasters for district leaders, I could count one “speech”, three “communication”-related words , one “tell” versus 12 derivatives of the word “lead” !

The reason for that is that the consultancy associated the needs of the target groups (one of the most important being the young professionals) with the will of becoming better leaders. Thus these people will look for opportunities to increase their leadership capabilities and will acknowledge that, in order to become better leaders, they need to become better speakers.

I fundamentally disagree with that assumption. Although I look for leadership opportunities in this organization, I came on first place to improve my public speaking skills, and so did all members I know.
I highly doubt that people will make the connection between leadership and public speaking at first. Googling on the web “public speaking” would lead them to a website where “leaders are made”… not exactly what they were looking for, and in a world where the first impression is often the last one, I think this messaging will not grab the attention of the prospective learners enough to make them stay and learn more on the website.

This brand positioning assumes people want to become leaders, putting the public speaking skills aside. However, leadership can be understood in many ways and is too fuzzy to be really effective as a tag line. Hence, instead of reinforcing the message of Toastmasters, which is dedicated to helping people improve their public speaking first and then their leadership skills, this branding centered around leadership rather undermines it.

Despite this point, I think that this branding was much needed. Unifying and changing the color codes and the logo was necessary to regain control of the Toastmasters brand and to give members a better experience wherever they are on Earth. Nonetheless, I fundamentally disagree with the emphasis set on the leadership side of the educational program. I think it weakens our message, as well as will be less effective for prospective members to connect leadership and public speaking and eventually join this fantastic organization.

A year as VP public relations for Toastmasters

Toastmasters International offers tons of leadership opportunities. After having spent 6 months as a member, I volunteered one year ago to become vice-president public relations of the Stuttgart International Toastmasters Club.

I was mainly elected for my technical abilities to reshape our Internet website, so I created a brand new website for our club and took any opportunity to advertise for our club. I started Xing, Facebook and LinkedIn groups, in order not only to promote Toastmasters in Stuttgart but also to create an esprit de corps around the club. Finally, since one of our members could record speeches with his camera, I also created a Dailymotion user for our club, in order to upload the videos. This gives the visitors a better idea of what they can expect to see and learn by attending our meetings.

In order to keep as much attention from the members and visitors as possible, I have created a blog on which I have put all new information that was related to our club. As a good salesperson, I know how customer cherish references and have made two interviews of members in order to show a testimony of success of the program. In the end, our members are our customers…
It is interesting to note that the number of visits increased every time I have sent a newsletter to all members and registered persons. This newsletter, published about every two month, was a summary of the blog and gave direct links to the website. Hence my advice if you start being involved in PR activities: don’t assume that people will check by themselves the information you give, you have to be more pushy than that.

Finally, one of my goals was to create awareness about the club in the local press to reach as many people as possible. I have sent literally dozens and dozens of emails to reach journals from the Stuttgart area and got very, very, very few answers. My experience is that if you want some press coverage, you have to persevere a lot. Most journals didn’t even bother responding an email to confirm they had received my request for an article.
After lots of efforts however, some journalists eventually came to write an article in their respective newspapers. However, the content of some of them was disappointing… if not partially invented ! The only thing I wanted to do was still to… thank the journalists! Because, honestly, if the article does not exactly look like what you imagined but makes your club look good, then it was worth the effort, and Toastmasters is such a great organization that it is difficult to write really critical things about our meetings.

I was pretty satisfied with the results of all these efforts : our club has gained 16 new members and the total number of members reached the good number of 40 (same as last year).

From a personal perspective, doing all these things helped me being seen as a credible officer and becoming the president of the Stuttgart International Toastmasters Club for the year 2010-2011. I am looking forward to leading the officers’ team of the club and, again, to taking all leadership opportunities offered by Toastmasters.

Toastmasters is good for you !

Have you ever been in front of an audience, looking desperately for your words, stuttering and sweating, trying to limit the damages and disappearing from the stage as quickly as possible after you were done ?

If this already happened to you, you should try Toastmasters !

Toastmasters International, founded in 1924, is a worldwide non-profit organization dedicated to help people improving their public speaking and leadership skills. I am a member of the Stuttgart International Toastmasters Club for 10 months now and I surely do not regret it. A colleague of mine during my internship at HP  invited me to a first session. I instantaneously became enthusiastic about the Toastmasters’ principles:

Toastmasters International is […] devoted to making effective oral communication a worldwide reality.

Through its member clubs, Toastmasters International helps men and women learn the arts of speaking, listening, and thinking – vital skills that promote self-actualization, enhance leadership potential, foster human understanding, and contribute to the betterment of mankind. […]

Toastmasters International empowers people to achieve their full potential and realize their dreams. Through our member clubs, people throughout the world can improve their communication and leadership skills, and find the courage to change.

Toastmasters International’s core values are integrity, dedication to excellence, service to the member, and respect for the individual. […]

We meet every two weeks at the IBM Klub in Böblingen. Meetings usually begin with the so-called Table Topics: Members present one-to two-minute impromptu speeches on topics assigned to them immediately prior to the speech. To make a great Table Topic is a real art, you need to be:

– creative: you need to tell a story that is actually going to interest the audience
– organized: a good speech has an introduction, a body and a conclusion. The introduction must be powerful to catch the attention and the conclusion must be clear and precise to close your speech in an elegant way
– focused: some speakers speak a lot in order to fill up the two minutes, however the goal of a Table Topic is to answer a question. Hence the speaker needs to focus on answering this question.

After this come prepared speeches, when up to three members present speeches based on projects from the Toastmasters Program manuals. Projects cover such topics as speech organization, voice, language, gestures, and persuasion.Their are ten projects in the Toastmasters “Competent Communicator” manual. So far, I have finished six of them and will finish the manual at the end of the Toastmasters year (June of 2010).

Every prepared speaker is assigned an evaluator who points out the speaker’s strengths and weaknesses and offers suggestions for improvement; the evaluations follow the prepared speeches. Here again, the evaluator needs to be precise, focused and friendly. The evaluation is an art: you have to make suggestions to the speaker so that he can get better, without hurting him.

What I love about this organization is that everything is planned to make the members better persons:
– better speakers, through the table topics and prepared speeches
– better listeners, through the evaluations, which require a lot of attention
– better leaders. Why ? Because Toastmasters is a worldwide organization, and like any organization, it has goals and need people to reach them. There are different levels within the organization: worldwide, regional, local and club. I am currently officer in the club as a Vice President Public Relations and I really like the job. I think that I can help  our club grow and fulfil its objectives. This is undoubtedly an extremely valuable opportunity to gain some leadership experience outside of the job.

If you need some more information, please visit the site of the international organization, or my club’s !