Last Summer, I gave a 45 minute interactive presentation entitled “Storytelling and the Secrets of Engagement” through my co-working space, CultureWorks. It was a speedy overview of how human beings connect to the specificity and emotional arc of personal experiences. Afterwards, one of the participants came up to me, thanked me, and said, “This is a lot like my Toastmasters group. You touched on a lot of the same ideas.” I smiled, nodded, said something awkward like “Yeah, totally.” I had no clue what a Toastmasters group was. I figured it had something to do with AA (or possibly anti-AA?)
The next day I googled it and low and behold, Toastmasters International is a worldwide organization founded in 1924. Their mission is to “empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.”
I spent a good amount of time browsing their online literature and watching their YouTube videos on various public speaking tips. After familiarizing myself with the brand, I wanted to reach out to the gentleman who took my workshop, shake him (with excitement, not violence) and say “Tell Me A Story is not like Toastmasters at all! I can help you become a better public speaker without turning you into a stiff, emotionless, speech robot.”
The official Toastmasters website allowed me to see what clubs were in my area. I put in my zip code, and was shocked to discover over forty local groups. I decided to reach out to all of them via email, introduce myself, and let them know that I could offer storytelling workshops during their meetings.
Through this outreach, I attended a Toastmasters meeting with Main Line Speaks . Before giving my presentation on storytelling, I sat in on their regular meeting. They went through the customary “table topics” exercise and had a member keeping track of presentation length, grammar and filler words. Everything felt formal and also very by the books. Each member had to stand up in front of the group and talk about whether or not they liked the cold weather. I never got a sense of who each individual was and it looked like it was torturing them to talk about such a mundane subject at such a superficial level. I even found myself zoning out.
It wasn’t until I started talking to them about personal stories and how to connect with your audience by sharing your own experiences, that the faces in the room lit up. While walking around the room during a group exercise, I heard bits and pieces of the stories that members shared with each other. Everyone was laughing, and their eyes were all engaged. The room was alive.
Everyone who attended the meeting was lovely. So lovely that as I was leaving, I wanted to shake them all (with excitement, not violence) and say, “You don’t need Toastmasters! Take my storytelling workshops, or attend local Story Slams.” Not only would they have ample opportunity to practice their public speaking skills, they will discover that their listeners will stay engaged. Communities are built and confidence is formed.
Recently, I stumbled across this personal essay written by Mary Mann for Salon. Mann attended a Toastmasters meeting in hopes of becoming more comfortable with public speaking. She did not have a positive experience with Toastmasters, and if I were someone who needed help with public speaking, I would definitely feel the same way that she did. Just the little I witnessed with Main Line Speaks, gave me enough to complain about with this archaic practice.
Mann says, “I had thought that public speaking skills were all I wanted too, but as I witnessed all the nervous speeches on inane topics followed by dutiful cheering, I began to doubt my intentions. Like Zorba the Greek eating buckets of cherries, his favorite fruit, and then never wanting cherries again, I felt inundated by shy people trying to “get better,” and slightly sick of the whole scene.”
Also, I wonder if Mann knows that Toastmasters did not let women participate until 1973. I found this out and vomited a little bit in my mouth.
I encourage you to read Mann’s full essay — if she performed this story about her Toastmasters experience at a Tell Me A Story show, everyone in the room would connect, commiserate, and realize that sharing this type of true life experience has more of a profound impact, than this “journey” that Toastmasters shares on their website.
As the founder of Tell Me A Story, I want to help individuals share their story through the lens of authentic humor and I want them to have fun while doing it. I also want the audience, whether it is a large group or an audience of one, to feel like they are a part of the story. Making connections through shared experiences builds confidence.
In summation: if you are considering joining a Toastmasters group, please reconsider.
Below are three tips for telling your story without going to a Toastmasters meeting.
1. Open-Body-Close vs. Beginning-Middle-End
Toastmasters teaches the format “Open-Body-Close.” Reading those three words in sequence makes my eyes droop and my head nod into a full on snooze. With storytelling, we use the structure “Beginning-Middle-End”. Already, I am on the edge of my seat, because I know I will hear an electric set-up of the scene, a bumpy road of accomplishments and obstacles, and an outcome that will make the protagonist of the story a better person.
2. We want to laugh with you, not at you.
There’s comedy in this Toastmasters “Virtual Tour”, but not the kind where the audience is on your side. I laughed at this video because the writing is horrible and the acting is even worse. This “real” look into this “real” club with this “real” group of co-workers (a stock photo come to life!) with perfectly coifed hair-dos (except for Lou, but he’s the clown!) makes me never want to wake up “bright and early.”
Sharing a personal story that you prepare, practice and present, allows you to reveal the truth of the circumstances and your unique sense of humor will bring your experience to life. This will allow you to have a complete command of the room. Everyone will be on your side, and cheer you on — both the “you” in the story and the “you” that is on stage telling it.
3. If you believe in what you are saying, you don’t need an “Ah” Counter or an official Grammarian.
When you prepare a story from your life to tell in front of an audience, you can plot out what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. But then you also need to trust yourself in that you lived through the event, and you inherently know what happened and how you feel about it. Combining the written preparation with an extemporaneous live telling, will automatically eliminate any “Um's” and “Likes” and “So's” that accompany the uncertainty and doubt in giving a presentation or speech about something that you do not connect with.
The audience also wants to hear how you speak, and how your words come out naturally. We don’t need a vocabulary word of the day that aims to prove to us that you know what you are talking about. When you tell us about a story from you life, you are the expert. We trust your words and the way you are choosing to share them.
2017 Update: Check out our downloadable PDF 7 storytelling tips that you won’t get from Toastmasters.