Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Leadership Role

As part of my ongoing efforts at self-improvement, I ran for a leadership position in my local Toastmasters club. The Toastmasters fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30 of the following year, so elections are usually held in June. There are several high level positions, such as president and several vice-presidents, followed by lower level positions such as treasurer, sergeant-at-arms, and secretary. I decided to try for secretary as my first office. I thought it would be an opportunity to learn how things worked and observe someone up-close before making a run of my own for a higher office.

I ran unopposed, so my victory was a fait accompli.

I'm still pleased by the outcome. The incoming president is a dynamic, smart individual. I'm looking forward to supporting him and learning from his experience over the next year.

Claiming a leadership position means training, so I headed over to a morning of sessions yesterday afternoon. There was the usual "pump up the crowd" opening and closing gathering sandwiching hour-long sessions on a variety of topics.

My first session talked about record keeping for secretaries and treasurers. It was a cautionary tale that merely signing up for Toastmasters doth not a speaker make. The man who gave the presentation was awful:

  1. His self-deprecation was merely annoying at first; it quickly made me wonder why he was chosen to speak at all.

  2. He was unprepared. He kept telling us about all the other things he had going on in his life (e.g., children, grandchildren, etc.) that made it impossible for him to be ready.

  3. His slides were simply atrocious.

  4. His delivery was flat, monotone, and uninspired. Record keeping may not be an exciting topic, but that's no excuse for informing so poorly.

  5. His speech was riddled with "ahs" and "ums" and lots of filler words.

I was nodding off in the back row. The audience was glad when the hour was over. There was an evaluation slip to be filled out, but I pulled the punch. The only criticism I wrote was "update slides".

I wanted to attend a discussion about Robert's Rules of Order next, a topic that I've heard about but never read. But when I peeked in the doorway I saw the presenter from the record keeping talk I'd just left setting up shop for his second presentation. Thank you sir, I'd rather not have another! I sprinted over to the "Evaluation Boot Camp" talk, and am I glad I did. It made the day worthwhile all by itself.

For those who aren't familiar, Toastmasters promotes the idea of developing speaking and leadership skills in a supportive environment. We're all familiar with preparing and delivering speeches, but feedback is rarely talked about. Every speech is given a 2-3 minute long evaluation. The evaluator has to listen carefully and critically while the speech is delivered, furiously write down their thoughts in the minute that follows, and then deliver an extemporaneous speech for 2-3 minutes that provides actionable recommendations.

It's not an easy thing to do. There are some telltale signs that signify "bad evaluation".

Evaluators need to resist the temptation to recap the speech: "They said this; then we heard this..." A recap isn't educational.

The manuals that guides members through a gauntlet of speeches has specific goals for each exercise. It's easy for an evaluator to read the objectives in a rote manner and check off how the speaker met each objective. It's slothful.

The worst of all says "Great job - I couldn't find a single thing to criticize! It was perfect in every way!" It might be great for the ego, but I won't learn what to do better from this.

Don E. Smith had some wonderful, actionable suggestions. He had an evaluation template that had space for comments on content, organization, and delivery (COD). He pointed out that there are only three kinds of speeches (PIE):

  1. Persuasive - talk about Feeling, organized logically, with a call to action at the end

  2. Informative - talk about Knowing, organized logically, without a call to action at the end

  3. Entertaining - talk about Experience, organized chronologically

He recommended citing the type of speech right up front. This fixes the type of organization right away. The evaluation dives right into content, organization, and delivery once that's sorted out.

I think my future evaluations will be better after hearing this. My speeches will be too, because now I will craft them with an evaluation in mind.

I've always shunned organizations and forced behavior. Fraternities are not for me. Toastmasters is no different. I'm not a rah-rah cheerleader for the organization.

But I like the quiet self-improvement and social opportunities. As I've attended more of the meetings and functions I've started to develop a small circle of folks that I'm comfortable with.

My goals for this year are to learn about the running of the club, get through the first book towards Advanced Communicator Bronze, and complete the Competent Leader designation to match my Competent Communicator achievement.

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