Freedom to Speak

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The name is quaint, the materials are lowbrow, the technology is simple, the venue is plebeian. But Toastmasters embodies the time-honored American traditions of voluntary interaction and self-reliance.

And it gave me one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.

At noon once a week, between 20 and 30 of us crowd around tables in a basement conference room of a bank here in Bozeman, Mont. During the next hour, the toastmaster of the day offers some amusing or inspirational words; two or three of us give short speeches; and others evaluate, monitor, and write friendly notes of encouragement. (We’re allowed to bring lunches but most people are too busy listening and writing to eat.) We vote on the best speech, the best evaluation, and the best impromptu “table topics” presentation.

The members are mostly professional people, but our ages, jobs, and interests vary widely. We have a public figure who once ran for governor (and came close to winning), a radio talk show host, an award-winning author of Christian novels, a professional environmentalist, a retired pediatrician. A contestant for Miss Rodeo Montana joined to improve her chances of winning (and she did). Several members are affiliated with Montana State University; one runs a motel; and one recently sold a business and isn’t quite sure what he’s going to do.

For virtually everyone who sticks with it, Toastmasters brings remarkable improvements. Toastmasters (as all members are called) give ten original speeches, working through a manual that introduces an aspect of public speaking with each presentation, an aspect such as “vocal variety,” “your body speaks,” and “visual aids.” Shortly after the first speech the “uhs” disappear. People who tremble visibly during their first “icebreaker” speech learn to be calm, poised, and articulate, thanks in part to friendly evaluations by other members after each speech. By the tenth speech most toastmasters have discarded their notes and many have found that they have talents – the ability to be funn~ perhaps – they never realized they had. For me, nearly every meeting brings a new insight into how to communicate or how to run a meeting.

In the course of these speeches we learn a lot about one another. Material is usually drawn from personal experiences – a seriocomic memory of a painful Little League event, a humorous description of menopause, an introduction to yoga. Occasionally speeches are clunkers, but that is pretty rare – and most of the speeches are only five to seven minutes long, anyway. Every speech is applauded (in fact, nearly every statement is applauded!), and there is a feeling of camaraderie that is almost joyful.

Yes, there is something old-fashioned about the organization. Although one of the ten manual speeches is about visual aids, the advice is mostly about handling physical props. PowerPoint is rarely mentioned (in my nearly two years with the group, I think that only one person other than me has used it). The club has a website, but members work from a variety of printed, low-priced manuals filled with encouraging advice and bearing a slightly outdated visual style. Members also receive the magazine Toastmaster, a similarly cheery four-color publication with chatty articles, many written by members of Toastmasters. (In style it resembles Home & Awa~ the magazine of the American Automobile Association until its recent replacement by the trendier Via; in fact, the organization as a whole reminds me of AAA.) The manuals may not be sophisticated works, but we soak up everything we can learn from them. And we read every issue of Toastmaster ~ members sometimes allude to recent issues at the meetings.

Toastmasters illustrates a lot about America – especially Americans’ fondness for voluntary associations and our continual urge for self-help. The roots of Toastmasters are midwestern and Christian (which may be why we start our meetings with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance). Officially founded in 1924 (but with its first meeting in 1905), the organization parallels the nation’s transition from rural to urban life and the concurrent transition of its people from “rubes” to “gentlemen.” One clue to its origins is the fact that each chapter still has a “grammarian.” Undoubtedly correcting poor grammar was once a key responsibili~but now the grammarian mostly counts “uhs” (which is why “uhs” rapidly disappear).

Ralph C. 5medle~ then educational director of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Bloomington, Ill., founded the first Toastmasters Club in 1905. As he wrote in his reminiscences (published in 1959), he saw a need for public speaking skills among the “boys and young men” in the YMCA. So he started a club in which the boys gave short speeches and the “older men” (he was two years out of college at the time) offered criticism. Smedley chose the name “Toastmasters” to convey “a suggestion of a pleasant, social atmosphere, free from anything like work or study.”

Even Smedley’s name evokes the American Midwest. A frequently reproduced photo of Smedley at a podium (probably from the 1940s) gives him the look of a small-town businessman, with unfashionable glasses and a suit that may have been a little large. According to a Toastmaster who heard him speak in 1951, Smedley wasn’t actually that great a speaker. Perhaps that endeared him to audiences – he wrote that one of his goals was to assure businessmen that they could speak in a conversational style, rather than the “formal rhetorical style” of oratory that was still popular early in the century.

By the tenth speech most toastmasters have discarded their notes and many have found that they have talents – the ability to be funny, perhaps – they never realized they had. 


The organization did not take off until Smedley settled in Santa Ana, Calif. (in Orange County, a region full of transplanted midwesterners). Even in California, he wrote, “Iob- served a tendency among my fellow secretaries at the Y.M.C.A. to regard the Toastmasters Club as a sort of peculiarity – an idiosyncrasy of Smedley’S.” But once a federation of clubs was formed, Toastmasters experienced solid growth. Toda)’, Toastmasters International, headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., claims to have 9,300 clubs in 78 countries. Smedley, who was involved with Toastmasters until his death in 1965, insisted that the organization be nonprofit. “I have been pronounced various kinds of fool for not making

Toastmasters parallels the nation’s transition from rural to urban life and the concurrent transition of its people from “rubes” to “gentleman.”


a fortune out of it,” he wrote in 1959, “but my reply has been that I would rather be rich in friendship than in money.” In fact, he signed over the copyright to the Toastmasters name only with a provision that if it became a profit-making entity the profits would go to him or to his estate. Smedley seems to have been a humble man; his reminiscences are heavily sprinkled with acknowledgments to others for their roles in developing Toastmasters.

The nonprofit nature of Toastmasters probably explains its old-fashioned quality. Without profits, there is little incentive for innovation, especially since there is a complex governing structure (with representatives from areas, districts, and divisions) that gives the federation some inertia. At the same time, the underlying framework is sound, and the organization’s continuing growth shows that it is meeting members’ needs.

In one of my Toastmasters speeches I tried to explain the market by using Toastmasters as an analogy. Here I want to tum that around and explain the success of Toastmasters by reference to its market-like qualities.

Many voluntary associations are founded with a narrow goal in mind – to build a library, say, or to preserve hiking trails. Such organizations naturally fit a governmental or even military mold. The purpose is clear, and the job is to marshal the membership to carry out the task efficiently. And the task itself is ordinarily something that promises broadly diffused public benefits, bestowed on everyone in a broadly defined class of people.

Toastmasters is a different kind of voluntary association. Even though everyone at Toastmasters has the goal of better public speaking, the specific aims of members are diverse and individual. In our club, for example, one woman wanted to be ready to chair a large meeting of a national charity; another is hoping to speak confidently before the City Commission; many want to improve their job performance. One man is actually in the business of public speaking; others have simply discovered the pleasure of self-expression and stay for fun. In other words, each person is self-interested. All come together to pursue their interests through exchange – making presentations and receiving the responses of individual people in their audience.

What makes this work so well is the existence of rules (think “rule of law”). Although there is little need for parliamentary debate in Toastmasters, Robert’s Rules of Order get great respect. (Smedley wrote a biography of Henry Martyn Robert, whom he much admired.) The Toastmasters meeting is organized according to a predictable plan that incorporates impromptu remarks by the Toastmaster, formal and informal speeches, and evaluations and observations. These provide a framework for the diversity that each member brings.

This framework evolved spontaneously over the years as Smedley and his associates adopted techniques that made the clubs more effective, such as moving from dinner meetings to noontime meetings, introducing manuals that explained not just how to speak but how to evaluate, inventing “table topics,” and originating contests. In spite of this evolution, meetings today are not all that different from meetings early in the 20th century. In 1932, the federation published 15 statements (“the famous 15 points,” Smedley called them) indicating the purpose of the organization. Each one – whether “to promote the growth and establishment of Toastmasters Clubs around the world” or “to make the name Toastmaster a mark of distinction and of recognized ability in public speaking” – could have been written yesterday, except that there is no longer an official liaison with the YMCA.

Today, in scores of countries, as people move from agriculture into urban life, Toastmasters is providing the same kind of aid that Ralph Smedley gave to the young men in Bloomington. And, as my experience confirms, even in our educated and urban society, Toastmasters continues to play an important role. Few Americans naturally feel comfortable about speaking in public, but many have found an effective way to help themselves. Through Toastmasters, individuals motivated by self-interest and operating under simple, straightforward rules are led as if by an invisible hand to promote and achieve not only their own interests but also those of one another – while having a very good time.


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