Toastmasters: Making Every Word Count

The 1,500 people walking around the Desert Springs Marriott appear as diverse as the Pitt-Jolie family. Yet despite being of both genders and of every age and race, they all seem like old, white insurance salesmen. They're confident, friendly, and wearing boxy blazers affixed with thick, plastic name badges. And they're probably not people the Pitt-Jolie family would hang out with.

They gathered in Palm Desert, Calif., last August for the annual Toastmasters International Convention. While Toastmasters has been teaching people how to improve their public speaking since 1924, the nonprofit started aggressively pushing for international growth when Daniel Rex became executive director in 2008. The 250,000-member organization now adds global Toastmasters at about 10 percent per year. (Much of the growth comes from India and Sri Lanka, places where people want to learn business skills—and English.) This month, Toastmasters begins its 2011 International Speech Contest in which 38,000 contestants from 113 countries compete for the chance to walk around a hotel next summer in a boxy suit and name tag—and the title of World Champion of Public Speaking.

Toastmastering has gone from a small-town pastime for shy groomsmen to a globalized business finishing school. While Toastmasters still has a base in small towns, 60 percent of its clubs are now in corporations. There are toastmaster clubs at Bank of America (BAC), Caterpillar (CAT), Intel (INTC), Microsoft (MSFT), and Wells Fargo (WFC). Aspiring rhetoricians—typically in their late 20s and early 30s—join because they're looking to enhance their career prospects. "There was that Chris Farley motivational speaker on Saturday Night Live," says Rex referring to a dark moment in the annals of speechifying. "That's not what we do! We help the new supervisor who just got promoted and doesn't feel comfortable talking to the five people working for him. We teach people skills, but what we really teach is confidence."

Experienced Toastmasters do tend to be confident. They also tend to have run across a country or sailed across an ocean—and are extremely happy to speak about it for five to seven minutes. John Rich, who teaches "communication leadership skills" Toastmaster classes at companies such as IBM (IBM) and Bell Canada, wears a kilt, it seems, just so he can speak about it. As Rich explains, for about five minutes, his dress code was inspired by the Canadian National Guard's Scottish division. "I branded myself," says Rich, who has cycled across Canada. "That's what Toastmasters needs to do. So people stop saying, 'Are you a drinking club? Do you make toasters?' "

Perception problems may exist because of Toastmasters' unique organizational structure. There are only 90 Toastmasters employees around the world, partly because so much work is done by volunteers. Members are required to make all sales calls to human resources departments as part of their "leadership development." This multitasking quirk, along with a complex membership hierarchy (from Competent Leader to Distinguished Toastmaster) and a raft of soberly titled booklets (Building Your Thinking Power, Part 1, Building Your Thinking Power, Part 2), makes Toastmasters seem like a self-help cult for the exceedingly normal. However, with membership at about $20 a year, and many booklets costing $5, if it's a scam, it's a scam run by an awful businessman.

Toastmasters also tend to be exceedingly nonjudgmental. A seminar called "Finding Your Voice" in the 300-plus seat auditorium of the Desert Springs Marriott is standing-room-only. And the audience laughs at everything. When speaker Lance Miller asks, "Anybody seen City Slickers?" people actually raise their hands. When he holds up a bottle of water and asks, "What can you tell me about this bottle of water?" he receives more than 50 different responses. These range from the obvious ("It's liquid") and the slightly less obvious ("It can put out fires") to the scientific ("Chemically, it's made of two gases") and even the metaphysical ("There would be no swimming, no skiing, no rafting without water.")

The banner event is the International Speech Contest, which has been held since 1938 and remains the WrestleMania of public speaking. Every Toastmaster invited has earned entry by winning his or her local district's competition with a speech no longer than 7 minutes and 30 seconds. While there is no financial reward for victory, the honor bestows bragging rights—and some spin-off financial opportunities. The Susan Lucci of public speakers, Miller lost for 12 consecutive years before winning the contest in 2005 with a speech about validation (both parking and spiritual). He's now confident that there isn't anything he can't wax about for under seven-and-a-half minutes. "I can do a speech about a can of Coke," says Miller, who has sailed the Atlantic and run across Europe. "I can do a speech about a collapsing arm on a piece of luggage." At the end of his speech, he sells $2,394 worth of his instructional DVDs in less than a half an hour.

According to Miller, a speech is like a dance: A good speaker signals where he wants to go, and never dips too early. "The power is in the simplicity and directness," he says. He warns students not to quote famous people—a flaw of many speeches at the competition. "He's using the quote to state something he doesn't feel capable of saying," says Miller of one contestant. "He just brought the person he was quoting to the stage and said, 'You're a bigger authority.' " The contestant was quoting Abraham Lincoln.

All the contestants tell their stories with dramatic pauses, talking to invisible characters and gesturing like magicians. One guy slaps his butt and gallops when comparing job interviews to riding a horse. Another speech is titled "The Magic of Unconditional Love" and is actually about the magic of unconditional love. Another guy talks about his divorce a lot. Toastmasters rewards many of them with trophies and certificates.

Rory Vaden, a young guy in a boxy suit with a pocket square, is a 2007 World Champion of Public Speaking runner-up. He suggests that aspiring business leaders "hologram" the stage. "When you walk between places to tell different stories, it creates a physical transition that helps the audience," he says. Vaden, who leveraged his speechifying celebrity into a book, No Laughs to Know Laughs, is an advocate of the rule of threes, in which you list two items as the setup and use the third as a punch line. As in: Vaden is well dressed, an author, and currently climbing the stairs of the world's tallest buildings. He's also happy to talk about it.

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