It’s been quite a while since taking my first tentative steps across the threshold of Helen Ley into the illustrious public speaking world of Toastmasters. But I have to say, despite the time that has elapsed since then, I have failed to cultivate a gloss of rose tint thick enough to obscure my memory of some of my more baffling first impressions.
I had attended Spa Speakers on my sister’s recommendation, living in California (the thriving epicentre of Toastmasters International), she no doubt thought it would be good sport to send me, her socially awkward younger sister along to a Toastmaster meeting. And so, it’s not so much with a nostalgic sense of warmth that I reminisce on my first meeting. Rather it is an abiding outrage that persists, that I had been a victim of sibling treachery and sent to a Toastmasters meeting, unarmed with any forewarning of the highly nuanced customs, conventions and etiquette.
Yes, Toastmaster meetings are dripping with protocol such that comparisons with Masonic rituals and secret handshakes may not be far from a newcomer’s mind.
So here are some of the basics that are useful to know:
By the point in the evening that first-time guests might be invited to the front to deliver a Table Topics they will probably have realised that their monologue should be prefaced with a scripted Toastmaster greeting having heard it reeled off by members numerous times already. However catching and regurgitating the exact words of the address can be a challenge. Hence a prompt is placed on the lectern with a reminder of those sacred words of our standard issue acknowledgement of the audience: ‘Mr / Madame Toastmaster, Fellow Toastmasters and Most Welcome Guests’.
For Table Topics, the speakers may use Mr/Madame Table Topics Master in place of Toastmaster, but if this is expected it’s generally customary for the Toastmaster or Table Topics Master of the evening to notify the group before getting started.
Additionally, distinguished visitors might also get a specific mention in the address. ‘Distinguished’ status generally being defined by an attendee’s position in the Toastmaster chain of command (e.g. Madame District Governor, Mr Area Governor.) But again if you are expected to modify the address to contain a shout out to the bosses, this will be explicitly outlined by one of our respectful observers of hierarchy at the outset of the meeting.
Clap, clap, clap. If in doubt, clap. Clapping at Spa Speakers signifies our universal and unconditional support and encouragement to each other. So clap. If you really are unimpressed and disapprove of something someone has just said and you wish to express that disapproval, please do not abstain from clapping altogether. Just clap slowly. It’s my belief that versatility and vocal variety is the mark of a proficient Toastmaster, however the mark of the expert Toastmaster is the ability to convey a spectrum of emotions through the medium of clapping alone. To possess the knack of clapping with disdain, that’s the experienced Toastmaster.
(Of course, for the avoidance of doubt, here at Spa Speakers we never have cause to applaud our members with anything other than uninhibited adulation… It’s just sometimes we do have visitors from other clubs…)
Those of you familiar with Lord of the Flies will know how integral the conch was to preserving civilised society… So too the handshake symbolises that which differentiates us Toastmasters from barbaric anarchists who speak aloud without invitation. From the opening of the meeting by the Sergeant at Arms to the close by the President, everyone who speaks at the front will have had ‘the floor’ passed to them by means of the handshake. It’s the handover of the lectern. Similarly the handshake is required to relinquish the floor to the next in line, so don’t exit too sharply or you’ll find a muted speaker chasing you to your seat in the quest for a handshake.
How to treat the Lectern
This one is more a clarification that to use or not to use the lectern is one of personal taste. Evaluators will frequently commend or recommend a speaker’s use of the lectern: that removing it was a good strategy, that removing it was unnecessary, that using it for notes was distracting, that it would have been a good prop for notes… So do with it as you please but know that you will be judged on your handling of it. Moving the lectern is known to be a coping strategy for biding time as a Table Topics speaker, so don’t be afraid to carry it all the way to reception if you’ve been given a really difficult question.
Though I’ve rarely heard it said, there’s a general understanding that the timekeeper is entitled to a sidekick. This assistant helps with some of the general admin (collecting slips, counting slips, prodding the timekeeper to start the stopwatch…) So if you are timekeeper, and have an empty seat next to you, don’t be afraid to shout up and ask for support if you want it.
I’m sure there are many more tips that I’ve missed off here, so if you can think of any useful hints on Spa Speaker etiquette please send us your thoughts.
- An introduction to the peculiar customs of Toastmasters clubs - 3rd July 2019