Toastmasters for Engineers

About a year ago this time, I joined a Toastmasters club, and today, I had my 9th prepared speech out of the 10 you need for your first title (i.e. Competent Communicator). Toastmasters is a huge network of self-organizing clubs that help members improve their communication and leadership skills.

I realize that different Toastmasters clubs could have slightly different rules and different cultures, so your mileage may vary. However, the cult-like general guidelines of this huge non-profit organization ensure your experience will not be that club-specific.

If you’re the quintessential engineer with limited communication and soft skills like myself, I’d recommend giving it a shot. Each club has a specific schedule for its meetings, and each meeting may contain a few prepared speeches, impromptu talks, evaluations, and other supporting summaries (e.g. grammar usage summary). Almost every role in each meeting will get an evaluation at the end. There are one-off contests once in a while too.

Every club member will be working on two tracks in parallel; communication and leadership. I personally put more focus on my communication track, which at the beginner’s level, consists of presenting 10 prepared speeches for the audience. Each speech has specific objectives, and as you progress, they become more advanced. For instance, they start from merely not using notes to watching for your body language and vocal variety.

The leadership track was never very attractive to me. The tasks in that track are obviously designed to help organize the club without any control from Toastmasters itself. Most of the administration is done by volunteers, and the contribution is gamified by awarding leadership badges and honours to those who donate their time. Even though it might have some educational value in leadership, I don’t think you can get anything more out of it than you do at your work.

Even though Toastmasters seems to be mostly about public speaking, it teaches engineers valuable lessons in soft skills. It helps with your speaking and, to some extent, writing skills. However, the two invaluable skills are coming from the general audience and the evaluation parts. The general audience makes you pick subjects that anyone can understand and is intereted in, and the limited speech time (around 5-7 minutes) forces you to make it concise. It also teaches you how to be tactful and diplomatic in your evaluations, and still get your points across. They specifically encourage using the “[shit] sandwich technique”, where you enclose the rough parts of your feedback with pleasant fluff.

As usual, the time and effort spent on Toastmasters has diminishing returns. I feel like the optimal point of retiring for me would be after the first communication manual, but of course, your experience may be different. It’s taken about one hour of my time every week, and a couple of hours for each speech. The membership fee is very little compared to your time and its value. You can always attend their meetings as a guest and decide for yourself if it’s your cup of tea.