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Guide on the Side - Toastmasters International --Communication and Leadership

By Marie Wallace, Published on February 4, 1997

By Marie Wallace

(Archived March 19, 1997)


Marie Wallace made the transition from an academic to a private law librarian in 1971and continued in the private sector until her retirement in 1995. She continues to be active in continuing education for private law librarians, and has been a moving force behind the creation and maturation of three programs:

*Practicing Law Institute's programs and Course Handbooks on Private Law Libraries, 1977-
*Southern California Association of Law Libraries Annual Institute on California Law, 1972-
*TRIPPL (Teaching Research Instruction in Private Law Libraries), 1990-

She has written about private law library management in numerous journals including:

*American Lawyer Management Service
*California Lawyer
*Database End-User *Lawyer Hiring and Training Report
*Legal Information Alert
*Legal Administrator
*Legal Assistant Today
*Legal Economics
*PLI Course Handbooks on Private Law Libraries


Much of a person's success in life depends on the ability to speak. Toastmasters International (TI) (http://www.toastmasters.org) provides the learning experiences that enable people to develop speaking skills. Recognizing the importance of these skills, many companies provide facilities for TI meetings and extra time for employees to attend meetings, and some financially sponsor in-house TI clubs. Thus, in the business world, it is common to find people who are or have been members of TI. It is less common to find people in the library world who are familiar with the program.

You can opt to acquire communication skills with a class or seminar, but speaking is a physical as well as a mental skill and requires distributed learning for mastery. The difference between being told how to speak and learning by doing it is similar to the difference between being told how to tango and attempting it on the dance floor with the music at full tempo. To develop any type of physical skill, you need to practice, be coached, build competency incrementally, as well as observe good models in action. TI meetings provide members with all these. TI operates on training principles or what I call the Guide on the Side scenario. It supports members' existing skills and helps them to improve their performance. What specific changes does TI make in communication behavior and presentation skills? Take your pick.

  • Stop being your own worst critic--and terrorizing yourself.
  • Learn how to give constructive evaluations without damaging egos.
  • Master techniques which allow you to speak on any topic without preparation.
  • Gain control over your "anxiety attacks."
  • Get immediate and expert feedback on your performance.
  • Learn how to assess an audience's interests.
  • Build a repertoire of speaking experiences, including speaker introductions, technical briefings, addressing hostile audiences, press conferences, after dinner speeches, and keynote addresses.
  • Get experience organizing and chairing programs.
  • Acquire body language which projects authority and confidence.
  • Experience using lecterns, podiums, microphones, and other presentation technology.
  • Practice presentations before a live audience to prepare for the real event.
  • Design and use visuals effectively.
  • Expand your lexicon of gestures.
  • Develop better listening skills.
  • Build leadership skills.
  • Receive The Toastmaster, a monthly magazine, devoted to communication.
  • Discover adult learning principles (fun, self-direction, immediate application).
  • Network with people who are in a "personal growth" mode.
  • Get a weekly "fix" of positive thinking.
  • Develop your own speaking persona and style of humor.

A illustration of what TI can do for members occurred several years ago in a meeting I attended. The speech was a rehearsal for a presentation to top management in two days. The member's company manufactured complex valve systems, and it took three weeks to get cost estimates to their customers. The speaker had developed a software program to provide this information in three hours. The speech was a proposal to install his software.

The speaker opened with a description of incidents where the company lost customers because of the slow response. The body of the speech was a description of his three hour software--ease of use, costs, and hardware. He ended with a summary of the benefits.

I thought the presentation was excellent. The material was well organized, technical terms were explained in a non-technical way, the few overheads were graphic, and the delivery was direct and sincere. The woman evaluating his speech praised the delivery but cautioned that she had made a similar presentation recently and found that it was a mistake to dwell on what was wrong when talking to top management. The CEO already is aware of problems besetting the company and may not react well to being reminded in public. (A form of "shoot the messenger.") The evaluator suggested starting on a positive note such as an assessment of customers' needs followed by the software solution and completely omitting reference to the present slow turnaround time.



Research has shown that the single most important reason employees do not do what they are supposed to do is because they do not clearly understand what's expected of them and that is because management commonly does not have effective communication skills.

This type of strategic evaluation, dealing with covert attitudes and audience assessment, made the difference between the proposal being accepted or rejected. Where else could you get it on short notice? Communication sensitivity spills over to employee/management relationships--orientation, briefings, training, motivation, and feedback.

What is a TI meeting like? Each club has officers and follows a common meeting agenda which allows members to speak in different roles--everything from a prepared ten minute speech or being the Toastmaster to a more limited role as the timer or the "ah" counter. These roles change with each meeting and members decide which responsibilities they are ready to assume. The structure of the TI program hinges on a series of Leadership and Communication manuals. The basic, first manual consists of ten speeches, starting with the icebreaker where members introduce themselves and confront any nervousness. Most of the speech are from 5 to 7 minutes and each speech has specific objectives--vocal variety, organize your speech, show what you mean, or write a speech and deliver it without sounding like you are reading.

In addition to the basic Communication and Leadership manual, there are 14 advanced manuals, each consisting of five speech assignments relating to the manual's topic:

  • Public Relations
  • Speeches by Management
  • The Professional Speaker
  • Communicating on Television
  • Storytelling
  • The Discussion Leader
  • Special Occasion Speeches
  • The Entertaining Speaker
  • Speaking to Inform
  • Technical Presentations
  • Interpersonal Communication
  • Specialty Speeches
  • Interpretive Reading
  • The Professional Salesperson

A set of the advanced manuals can be purchased by members for $27.00 at any time and are a valuable personal reference resource.

Cost of membership varies from club to club--usually in the neighborhood of $25.00 for six months. There is a small initiation fee for the first time member which covers the cost of a kit of educational materials. In terms of results, TI is a bargain.


If you suddenly have to deliver an award, eulogy or roast, it is useful to have a manual which gives you pointers and reminds you of the objectives for the particular type of speech.


A side benefit of TI is to observe progress in other members as well as yourself. It is especially apparent when English is a member's second language.

Some members with specific and immediate leadership goals belong to more than one club so they can move ahead on a faster track. In a risk-free, supportive environment, where learners control the pace, self-confidence and personal growth take place quickly.

Visitors are welcome at all TI clubs. It is advisable to call ahead and confirm the meeting time and place. Occasionally, clubs depart from their regular schedule to accommodate regional or district events. You may want to visit several groups several times, as each club is a different mix of personalities. Clubs meet a variety of times--for breakfast, lunch or dinner for one or two hours. I chose my group for the meeting time and length: one hour at noon. It meets in downtown L.A., consequently, there is a diverse cross-section of professionals, including many attorneys from larger firms.

By calling headquarters in Mission Viejo, California (714-858-8255) or (http://www.toastmasters.org), you can discover local meetings.

Presentations magazine(http://www.presentations.com) is another "must" for presenters. On page 18 of the Dec. 1996 issue there is a list of presentation-related associations to help presenters grow professionally and network with their peers. TI is recognized on Presentations' list and affirms the relevance of the organization.

TI provides members with much more than communication skills. It paves the way to using presentation technology effectively and to moving into the teaching and training arenas. Additionally, TI members are often surprised how speaking skills resonant in other spheres of their life--personal, social, civic, and spiritual--and how TI builds leadership skills. The number one job of a leader is to define reality--to create, clarify and communicate meaning. When we speak, we either reinforce a message or muddle it. If the message is muddled, people align their ears to where the ideas are clearer. To illustrate, I know a private law librarian and TI member who presented a new library design to the firm's somewhat skeptical Executive Committee. She immediately aligned the decision-makers' ears to her reality with "I am interested in the same thing you are--money."



When I travel in the U.S. or abroad, I often take a list of TI meetings in the destination city so that I can visit a local TI club. It is a good way to meet people and pick up travel tips.