Pros And Cons Of Toastmasters

If someone has a fear of public speaking, or even feels shy and socially awkward in general, one suggestion they'll hear a lot is to join Toastmasters. I'll share my thoughts on its strengths and weak points, with an emphasis on how it can help people polish their basic social skills and confidence. I'm hardly a veteran Toastmaster or master orator, but I've been a member of the organization in the past, for long enough to form some opinions about it. As I'll explain, I don't think Toastmasters has many true downsides, though what it offers may not match what everyone is looking for.

Benefits of Toastmasters

These aren't shocking, groundbreaking points. The advantages of Toastmasters are well known, but I'll still cover them.

It's an extremely safe, supportive, encouraging environment

Many people are afraid of public speaking because they fear they'll be harshly judged by the audience. Toastmasters meetings have a very friendly, supportive atmosphere by design. Everyone there knows getting better at public speaking can be nerve racking, and they want to make it as painless as possible. Aside from the other members generally being nice, the encouraging vibe is also built into how the meetings are run. For example, when members give each other feedback they focus on giving constructive suggestions, and not just pick apart their mistakes. Toastmasters can also feel safe in the sense that it's easy to find a club where you don't know anyone, so you can practice around people where you're not that invested in their opinion of you.

It's very affordable

Toastmasters is a bargain. The cost varies by country, but in the US it comes out to less than $10 a month. Many clubs and classes cost way more than that for one lesson. Before you officially sign up you can also attend meetings for free as a guest to get a sense of what they're like. Guests get a handful of opportunities to speak as well, though obviously not as many as a full member.

Some people are Toastmasters members for years, and want to become top tier public speakers. Others can achieve their more-modest goals in a few months, which is clearly easier on the wallet. Like they just want to lose some of the raw terror they get at the thought of giving a talk, and after doing a few at their local club they don't feel so intimidated by them.

It's not just about giving formal pre-written, rehearsed speeches

Getting better at delivering proper speeches is certainly a core part of Toastmasters, but it isn't all it's good for. Every meeting has lots of other little opportunities for its members to practice expressing themselves to a group. Every meeting has a Table Topics segment, where members are given a topic or prompt and have to come up with a short speech on the spot. It challenges you to create material on the fly, while still executing other speaking elements like structure and body language. There are also about a dozen other roles members can take each meeting, which give little bits of speech time. Like as the Grammarian they'll have to share and explain a Word Of The Day. As a Speech Evaluator they'll have to give a short impromptu presentation going over what they liked about someone's talk, as well as areas where they could improve.

Even if your goal isn't to be some dynamo keynote speaker, you'll probably find that going to meetings for a few months makes you feel more comfortable speaking up in everyday group conversations. You've had practice being in the spotlight, and you'll feel that much more at ease having everyone's eyes on you as you tell a quick anecdote or share an opinion.

I won't go into too much detail, but Toastmasters also has opportunities to get involved in running the clubs and organizing events, where you can build your leadership, teamwork, and event planning skills. Not everyone who joins will want to jump into that side of it, but the options are there.

You can get lots of constructive feedback on your speaking style

You'll be told if you tend to talk really fast without taking a breath, speak too quietly, launch into a story without setting up the premise, and so on. The feedback is delivered in a gentle, constructive way that takes most of the sting out of it, though it can still catch you off guard to learn about a mistake you had no idea you were making. It's ultimately for the best though. At least once you know you, say, shift around too much on your feet, you can address it.

You can choose what facets of public speaking you want to work on

For one, when you join Toastmasters you'll get a series of speech writing projects to work through at your own pace. You can choose from a variety of tracks, which will give you assignments based on things like humor or persuasion. You'll also write your own speeches, so you can further emphasize specific aspects of them. For example, even if your projects are based around delivering motivational speeches, you can still choose whether they'll lean toward being funny, story-driven, or inspirational.

It provides the kind of general social opportunities joining any club does

This isn't a benefit unique to Toastmasters, but it's still a way someone could grow socially from it. When you join a Toastmasters club you can get to know the other members, before, during, and after the meetings. A club may throw non-meeting social get togethers too, like a hike or board game night. Maybe you'll hit it off with some of the other members and start hanging out outside of an official meeting.

Ways Toastmasters may not be a fit for everyone

I hesitate to call these true "cons", as it's not that Toastmasters has any straight up problems. It's more that its meetings have their specific priorities, rules, and structure, which means they're good at some things and not so great at others. It's more that they may not always be an ideal match for someone's goals or learning style, rather than they do something actively harmful.

Toastmasters isn't an all-around social skills class

This seems obvious, but I know not everyone realizes this. Toastmasters can be such a rote recommendation whenever someone says they feel insecure or awkward in social situations that someone may get the impression it's a general interpersonal skills course. Toastmasters can definitely improve your people skills and confidence in many ways, but it's still focused on speaking to groups. Like there's never going to be a module on having a witty one-on-one conversation.

Every club is different. Some may not be what you're looking for. Members may not be that experienced or helpful, and try to push you in a direction you don't want to go

This isn't a knock against Toastmasters as a whole, but a reminder that every club is unique. Some may be exactly what you need. Others may have an unspoken culture that isn't your style, and you'll come across more of the issues below.

Toastmasters can over-emphasize how to deliver a speech, and ironing out little mistakes and tics, rather than having engaging ideas to share

You can still get some opinions on the structure or organization of your speech, but on the whole the feedback isn't that concerned with what you're actually talking about. Whether your material is trite and cliche, or sparkling and original, your evaluators will comment more on how you delivered it. Did you make eye contact with the audience? Did you gesture and use vocal variety? Stuff like that.

There's nothing inherently wrong with focusing on delivery over content. Everyone's tastes vary in terms of what material is interesting or relevant to them, but we can all agree it weakens your message if you say "Um" every two seconds. However, sometimes it can seem like Toastmasters members will give dull content a free pass, but then fixate on trivial things like how exactly someone made a gesture. In real-life settings it's often more important to have good ideas, and no one's too worried about whether you fidget or use filler words every now and then.

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Toastmasters can encourage an expressive, theatrical style of speaking that doesn't translate to everyday situations

Not only can Toastmasters over-emphasize delivery, but it tends to value a heightened, animated type of speaking over others. If you look at the kinds of performances that win Toastmasters' big speech contests, they usually have a very theatrical flavor to them, where every little gesticulation is planned down to the millimeter. They can seem more like a monologue from a one-person play than a naturalistic talk.

Within reason there's nothing wrong with suggesting people be more animated. If you speak in a dry monotone, while standing behind a podium as stiff as a board, you should try to be more lively. However, if your goal is just to get more comfortable delivering project updates at work meetings, you don't need to be ultra-expressive or speak in a sing-songy voice. The evaluations you get in your meetings may seem like they're pushing you more and more in that direction. If you want your style to stay more grounded, you'll need to use your judgment about what feedback to use or not.

Members can be too supportive with their feedback, and afraid to give harsher critiques

Overall I think it's best to point out what a beginning speaker is doing right, and not load them down with too much criticism. Though at times you may feel ready for more direct, even biting, feedback, and wish everyone could just be more straightforward with you. Even if you ask, they may still not be as direct as you'd prefer.

You may not get to do a ton of speaking each meeting, which might not be enough practice for what you're trying to achieve

As I said, Toastmasters meetings provide lots of little chances for many members to talk, but if they're not giving a proper speech that day each person may only get a minute or two of speaking time. For many members that's fine, but if you want to build up your public speaking skills in a more concentrated, intensive way, Toastmasters may not be enough for you.

Some members join multiple clubs, so they can go to several meetings a week, and hopefully be able to give a speech at one of them. For most people it won't be necessary, but in some cases it may make more sense to work with a one-on-one speaking coach, where the focus can be on you the entire time.

It's a fair amount of work to write and rehearse a series of speeches

As soon as you finish one assignment, there's another one waiting for you. If you join Toastmasters and want to get through the projects at a reasonable pace, it requires a fair investment in time, effort, and mental energy. It can wear you down. If nothing else, it can be draining to always be semi-nervous about the next speech you've got in the pipeline. Hopefully the sacrifice will be worth it, but know going in you do have to set aside some mental space to work on your public speaking skills.

Table Topics can seem really daunting at first, but after a while it can seem like a glorified improv game that doesn't carry over into real life as much as you first assumed

Many beginners find the Table Topics segment intimidating - "You mean I have to come up with a speech on the spot, about a topic I've just been given?!? That's impossible!" They may think if they can master putting together off-the-cuff speeches that skill will be applicable in all kinds of real world situations.

Don't get me wrong, being half-decent at Table Topics can help you hold it together if you, say, have to give a little spiel about yourself in a job interview, but as you get more experience with it the shine can wear off. You'll realize it's actually pretty rare to be expected to come up with a fully formed speech from scratch. Once you've gotten the basics down, having to do Table Topics meeting after meeting can feel superfluous. It can start to feel like a semi-pointless party trick that Toastmasters members practice for its own sake.

A few more subjective reasons Toastmasters may not be everyone's cup of tea

Some people won't mind these things, or even prefer them, but others may think they're a bit tiresome and find it saps their motivation to stick with the organization longer term.

Toastmasters meetings can feel rigid, overly structured, and full of fluff

Meetings follow an unwavering template. Each component is there for a reason, but the repetitive format may wear on you after a while. For example, you may find yourself thinking, "Do they have to give out half a dozen 'awards' every meeting? Does each role always need to explain what it does? Can't we just get on with it?"

The supportive, upbeat atmosphere can feel fake, insincere, and cloying at times

Again, there are good reasons the meetings are like this. Their cheerleading vibe has more benefits than drawbacks all in all. Though the relentless positivity can feel grating - "Do we really have to faux clap every time someone opens their mouth? Do we have to pretend every speech anyone gives is incredible? Can't we be a bit more real with each other?"

Lots of roles need to be filled each meeting, and in smaller clubs you'll often have to take one. You can't just hang back and watch

Toastmasters meetings require a lot of active participation. You can't just deliver a formal speech every month or two, but sit back and chill the rest of the time. In bigger clubs it's not so bad, but in smaller ones the organizers will constantly be asking members to take on this or that role for the next session. Once more, there's nothing wrong with this, but if you're inclined to be lazier it can wear you out. It can be irksome to constantly feel hassled to be the Timer or Table Topics Master, or whatever position needs to be filled.

Toastmasters meetings are a tad corny

Toastmasters meetings can feel a bit cheesy, with their upbeat atmosphere, jargon, and cutesy pretend awards. As I keep saying, I understand why it makes sense for the meetings to lean toward being corny. It keeps things light and prevents everyone from taking themselves too seriously. Maybe you'll find the vibe endearing. However, for some people the kitschy energy may get under their skin after a while.