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.