About a month ago I started attending a new group forming now in Grand Rapids called “ Toastmasters for Techies”.  I had heard of “Toastmasters” many times in the past as a group that had been around for a long long time to help people get better at speaking in public.  Today in 2010, Toastmasters has served over four million people and is growing all the time – case in point being this “Toastmasters for Techies” group.

What drew me to this group was that is was:

  1. just getting started (didn’t want to be “behind”)
  2. “unbranded” (some groups are part of businesses or organizations that I am not a part of)
  3. local / close (meets downtown at Wealthy/Diamond at Atomic Object)
  4. focused on techies (not just “nerds” getting together and giving speeches, but better yet “geeks” getting together and giving speeches)
  5. and I knew a few of the people who were already going and knew they were good people

If you know me you know I like to talk – probably too much, and probably too often.  I gave professional presentations seven times last year, and five times each of the previous two years.  I’ve also led a Robotics club with a bunch of kids and parents, been a Den Leader in Cub Scouts, taught classes at church, and spend quite a bit of time at work talking/discussing/debating ideas and projects with clients and team members.  And all of this just means I am really part of the problem that Toastmasters is trying to solve.

If we are being honest right now, there are a lot of just-plain-bad-presentations out there in the computer field.  Either a presenter is just too smart for the audience and loses them in the first five minutes, or they get caught up in a failed demo that was the basis of their entire session, or they are a good speaker but it is clear that “someone else” prepared the slides and the demos for them, or some unfortunate combination of these which we won’t talk about. I have even seen some speakers that seem to be just speaking for themselves and do not seem to be aware or care that there are any other people in the room.  I am not alone in these observations.

Also, I’ll stop short of saying that “PowerPoint is Evil!” but I will say that it is a tool that has been used much more often as a crutch for bad speech preparation, or as a smoke screen for a clear lack of content, than to support presentations of substance.  Even people that have gotten the whole “Presentation Zen” idea seem to work harder on trying to find the right catchy picture for their content (or worse yet, catchy content for a cool picture they found).

Even if you have had similar experiences with such presentations, I need to say that the audience is also somewhat at fault.  I have reviewed many evaluation forms from people at the events we have held or my own talks. The feedback always seems to be quite minimal and almost always “4-5 stars.”  I don’t know if this is because most of the talks are free or given by volunteers, or if the bar has been set fairly low.  There is an occasional “gem” of an evaluation, with some constructive criticism or suggestions for additions/improvement, and those are really “gold” to someone who takes their speaking seriously. One of the biggest things I have learned in my first month in Toastmasters is really how to evaluate and give feedback to speakers that they can use and work with.

I’ll be the first to stand up and testify that I need help being a better speaker.  I have always gone over on time in my recent presentations – or at least cut out content that I had “intended” to get to.  I always thought it was better to have a lot of content that covered a variety of areas.  I have used and abused PowerPoint.  Because I try to squeeze an over-abundance of content into talks I tend to talk very quickly, which can be entertaining and engaging, but is not optimal for learning.  I admit I have sometimes finished or “tweaked” demos for a talk while setting up in the very room for the talk – again, keeps things “current” and “exciting” but doesn’t always show a concern for the content or audience.  I want to improve.

ti_logo1 So I enter into this Toastmasters experience with the intent to become more precise and concise in my speaking.  When I was first writing a monthly column I would write 1,200 or even 1,400 word articles only to have my ever-patient editor send them back and say to cut them down to 400-600 words but still “tell the same story.”   Over the years I got better at writing within the boundaries of a print publication and even avoided many edits in my last few years of writing.  I need to do the same thing with speaking – say less words but tell the same story.

Each Toastmasters Club needs to recruit 20 members to be formally established, and the group is almost half way there.  I hope if you are a local “techie” that you are interested in improving your speaking skills, that you would consider stopping by on Monday over lunch as an “honored guest” at one of our meetings.

Feel free to check out our web site or our Twitter account for more info.