Toastmasters: Where Language is Power

Christopher Hurtado —  December 15, 2005
Toastmasters: Where Language is Power | Christopher Hurtado

Speaking in front of an audience is one of the biggest fears among our society today. Such reluctance infects the speaker’s confidence and causes people to feel like calling in sick rather than keeping their commitment to speak in front of an audience. Not many people seem to be natural-born speakers. Are those who speak well in front of an audience gifted? Or, have they improved over time through practice and learned techniques? To find the answers to these questions, we researched Toastmasters International.

Toastmasters understands the common fear most people experience when it comes to public speaking and helps victims of anxiety find their voice. (Toastmasters Find). Enhancing communication skills and fostering communication effectiveness is the ultimate goal of Toastmasters (Toastmasters Find). To help its members overcome anxiety, Toastmasters builds confidence through a deliberate process of building upon strengths while eliminating weaknesses through practice.

Through an interview with the new president of Toastmasters International we reviewed in their official magazine, The Toastmaster, we learned that Toastmasters has 211,000 members in 10,500 clubs in 90 countries (“Find”). Newly elected president, Dilip Abayasekara, reflects the culture and values espoused by local Toastmasters clubs across the globe. Abayasekara points out the value of Toastmasters as a tool for self-discovery (“Find”). He tells the story of how Toastmasters helped him personally to discover his unique gifts and to start a new career as a professional speaker (“Find”). In our research, we discovered that it is not altogether uncommon for a professional speaker’s career to begin with Toastmasters membership (Lacagnina). Abayasekara argues that the power of language and the importance of communication are central to the purpose of Toastmasters (“Find”). Throughout our research we observed this emphasis on the role that language plays in all aspects of the culture of Toastmasters. Abayasekara points out that Toastmasters has global reach in helping people develop their communication and leadership skills (“Find”). He adds that he believes that Toastmasters helps people gain self-confidence and that as a result, they contribute their unique gifts to society for the benefit of others (“Find”). From this belief, Abayasekara derived his motto for his term in office: “Find Your Voice. Serve Your World.” He explains that to “find your voice” means to explore your own values, aptitude, inherent ability, and talents. To “serve your world” means to help others by nurturing their ability to cultivate their own talents (“Find”).

Toastmasters International has a two-fold mission: to help people develop their speaking skills and their leadership skills. This they do throughout the world at weekly club meetings where members practice these skills in a structured manner, in a supportive environment. In our research, we experienced Toastmasters firsthand and found it to be true to its mission. Going into this, we knew very little about the culture of Toastmasters. Only one of us had previously attended a meeting. However, based on the experience one of us had, we felt Toastmasters would be an ideal group to research in terms of language and culture since Toastmasters is all about the power of language. After attending a weekly meeting of the Cy-Fair Super Speakers Club, a local Toastmasters International Club, and interviewing a panel of its members, we have gained an appreciation for Toastmasters and a deeper sense of their core mission and values.

Our research methodology consisted of a review of Toastmasters literature, observation of a Toastmasters club meeting, and an interview with club members. We reviewed the Toastmasters International Web site and the Cy-Fair Super Speakers Club Web site, Toastmasters International’s magazine The Toastmaster, and newsletter District Newsletter, as well as Toastmasters International brochures and training materials. In addition to reviewing Toastmasters literature, we sat in on a regular weekly meeting and were afforded the opportunity to participate, which we learned is customary for visitors to Toastmasters club meetings. After the meeting, we interviewed a panel of club members, including the club president, other longtime attendees and a new member.

We visited a weekly meeting of the Cy-Fair Super Speakers Club, a local Toastmasters International Club on a Monday night. At the beginning of the meeting, the club president took the lectern and used a gavel to call the meeting to order (Cy-Fair). This is part of the Toastmasters Roberts Rules of Order culture of parliamentary procedure (Lacagnina). Following the club president’s opening remarks there was an invocation given and the pledge of allegiance was said (Cy-Fair). This practice stands out as one of the distinguishing features of Toastmasters as this is rarely done in newer organizations. Following the pledge, the club president introduced the evening’s meeting’s “Toastmaster.” A Toastmaster, in this context, is the club member assigned to conduct the evening’s meeting (Cy-Fair). Each of the members of the club assumes this responsibility on a weekly rotation schedule (Lacagnina). The Toastmaster started by introduced the evening’s speakers. One speaker was giving her “Ice Breaker” speech, she said, while another was giving his “No. 3” speech (Cy-Fair). In the Toastmasters culture, this lingo comes straight out of the training manual, which outlines a progressive track through a number of speeches leading to mastery of the craft (Lacagnina). In addition to the above two speakers, one other member and the three of us were asked to give “Table Topic” speeches (Cy-Fair). Table Topics is the Toastmasters lingo for impromptu speeches assigned to any number of members at each club meeting (Lacagnina).

The same relationship exists inside of Toastmasters, which has created its own lingo to define its culture. For instance, “The Ice Breaker” refers to a member’s first prepared speech after hearing and observing other prepared speeches and “Table Topics” (Toastmasters. Ice). It is the beginning step in participating in the Toastmasters way of mastering public speaking. To “break the ice,” implies warming up to people or people warming up to you, in other words, “getting to know you.”

The Toastmaster giving his or her “Ice Breaker” prepares a speech with a brief personal introduction. The Ice Breaker includes the Toastmaster’s goals in life, choices made, and ambitions held (Toastmasters. Ice). The Ice Breaker also focuses on anticipated life obstacles and efforts made toward overcoming them. The Toastmaster giving his or her Ice Breaker should feel more comfortable talking about the subject closest to home, which is his or her own background, interests and pursuits (Toastmasters. Ice). Speaking about oneself makes the audience more interested in the speech, and therefore helps build confidence in the speaker. This kind of planned, structured activity designed to build confidence is prevalent in the Toastmasters culture. The Toastmaster giving his or her Ice Breaker focuses on style, body language, gestures and controlling anxiety in speaking (Toastmasters. Ice). After delivering their Ice Breaker, Toastmasters are encouraged to congratulate themselves for giving their first speech (Toastmasters. Ice). Additionally, they are asked to do a self-evaluation. In this evaluation, the Toastmaster looks for strong and weak points in the speech (Toastmasters. Ice). This process of evaluation not only suggests keeping up with the strengths, but also encourages avoiding encountered weaknesses in order to improve for one’s next prepared speech.

Before the speakers began delivering their speeches, the “Ah/Uh Counter,” “Grammarian,” and “General Evaluator” were introduced and the word of the day was given, along with its definition (Cy-Fair). The Ah/Uh Counter is understood by Toastmasters the world over to be the person assigned for the duration of the meeting to count how many times speakers say ah, uh, um, er, etc., make false starts or otherwise flub their speeches (Cy-Fair). The Grammarian’s job is to listen for grammatical errors and the General Evaluator is charged with standing at the lectern to give an evaluation of the speakers’ performance following the speeches (Cy-Fair). The word of the day is the Toastmasters way of building vocabulary, which is not surprising considering their focus on language usage (Cy-Fair). Table Topics speakers, we were told, were to attempt to incorporate the word of the day into their impromptu speeches, and would be evaluated on whether or not they did (Cy-Fair).

After introducing the Ah/Uh Counter, Grammarian and General Evaluator, the Toastmaster introduced each speaker, who in turn gave his or her speech (Cy-Fair). Following each speech, members and guests filled out standardized evaluation forms critiquing the speeches given (Cy-Fair). Following the speeches there were evaluations given from the lectern and a report from the Ah/Uh Counter and Grammarian (Cy-Fair). The General Evaluator then gave his evaluation of the speeches given and of the meeting in general from the lectern and handed out awards for “Best Speech,” “Best Table Topic” and “Best Evaluator” according to the majority among the members of the audience (Cy- Fair). One of us won the “Best Table Topic” award (Cy-Fair). The manner in which the evaluations were given was indicative of the Toastmasters culture, which we found to be supportive and encouraging (Cy-Fair). After pointing out a speaker’s strengths, areas for improvement were touched upon as well (Cy-Fair). Following the evaluations, the club president adjourned the meeting (Cy-Fair).

Following our observation of the Cy-Fair Super Speakers weekly meeting, we interviewed a panel of the members in attendance. This interview gave us some deeper insights into the link between language and the culture of Toastmasters. Club president Shawn Lacagnina stated that non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal communication when giving praise. He suggested that smiling when making eye contact with a speaker or clapping at the end of a speech builds confidence in the speaker (Lacagnina). We found this to be a general practice throughout the meeting. Club member Shirley Valenziano added that it is important to applaud all speakers, regardless of the number of speeches they’ve given, and that this practice communicates mutual appreciation and equality among members of the club (Lacagnina). We found this aspect of the Toastmasters culture to reflect the values and mission of the organization.

Mr. Lacagnina also pointed out that, in addition to public speaking, Toastmasters also teaches leadership skills, especially through its club, area and district leadership track (Lacagnina). This we found to be consistent with the above-mentioned Roberts Rules of Order parliamentary procedure followed by the president and the evening’s Toastmaster. Another club member, Eleanor, pointed out that leading Toastmasters meetings helps develop leadership abilities as well, especially when it comes to leading business meetings (Lacagnina). Longtime club member, Chuck Quinn, added that Toastmasters helps its members become comfortable in these types of situations, and that the single biggest benefit of Toastmasters is confidence in front of groups of people (Lacagnina). This statement, we feel, pretty well sums up the culture of Toastmasters: one in which the ability to speak or lead in confidence is fostered in a supportive environment of peers. Mr. Quinn added that “the more confidence you gain, the farther you’re going to go as a person” (Lacagnina). Again, this sums up the Toastmasters culture nicely in that it embraces the power of language as a driving force toward success in public life.

Our review of the literature Toastmasters puts out also led us to its Accredited Speaker Program. Through this program, Toastmasters works to achieve its goal to build communication skills by recognizing those who have achieved success at addressing an audience. The Toastmasters Education Program points out that people can only truly become better public speakers by actually speaking in front of others frequently, and provides a structured way in which that experience can be acquired through a series of speeches starting with the Ice Breaker and leading to accredited status (Toastmasters. Accredited). The accredited Speaker Program recognizes members who, by participating in the program, achieve a professional level of public speaking (Toastmasters. Accredited). This program not only helps members of Toastmasters improve their own public speaking skills, it also provides a supportive and positive learning environment through which its members can add to the art of speaking, the art of listening and the art of critical thinking (Toastmasters. Accredited). This aspect of the culture of Toastmasters is evident in the club meeting participation of all members who aren’t speaking as audience and evaluators to those who are (Cy-Fair).

The program also affords members of Toastmasters the opportunity to earn the respect and admiration of their fellow members as they win recognition and promotion through the ranks to accredited status (Toastmasters. Accredited). Furthermore, by participating in the program, members will not only be given the opportunity to give speeches and improve their ability to do so, but they will also have many chances to develop needed skills to successfully handle every situation in life (Toastmasters. Accredited). This is a recurring theme in Toastmasters: the idea that the power of language, as demonstrated by skill in public speaking, is an invaluable tool in all areas of life.

In addition to helping its members become better public speakers, which we knew going into our research, we also found that Toastmasters promotes leadership. We discovered this in our Cy-Fair Super Speakers Club member panel interview and in our review of an issue of the District Newsletter, a Toastmasters International newsletter. One article in particular focuses on innovative approaches in its educational system and award designations for the year 2006. The goal is to strengthen its leadership training and to make all educational designations in the communication and leadership tracks clearer and more meaningful (District). This was not at all surprising to us given the emphasis on leadership in the meeting we observed and the literature we reviewed. Toastmasters is adding leadership awards to its programs as well as renaming educational awards to distinguish between speech awards and leadership awards (District). Another article gives an overview of the requirements for becoming an international director or officer in the organization (District).

The Toastmasters leadership program helps people improve their self-confidence and creative thinking skills to become more effective leaders (Toastmasters. Expanding). The culture of Toastmasters conveys in all that it says and does that confidence is a powerful element of leadership. Self-confidence helps members cultivate persuasion in delivering speeches (Toastmasters Find). Since leadership is the art of persuasion, or influence, and influence is dependant upon effective communication, Toastmasters helps individuals enhance self-esteem and leadership skills by helping them learn the art of communication through public speaking.

The Success Leadership and Success/Communication Program consists of a series of modules that are used to help members enhance their communication skills such as public speaking, evaluation, listening, and conducting meetings (Toastmasters. Expanding). Each of these skills is espoused by the culture of Toastmasters, as imperative for success and this philosophy is evident in the language used by the organization to describe them. Developing these skills also provides the opportunity to develop the ability of a Toastmaster to understand, accept, and overcome challenges as a leader (Toastmasters. Expanding).

Another key feature of the Toastmasters culture is teamwork. By providing a teamwork environment, this program not only helps members develop personally, but also develops qualities required for effective leadership (Toastmasters. Expanding). This aspect of the Toastmasters culture underscores the fact that many businessmen today realize that becoming a better leader isn’t just a matter of honing one’s speaking skills or using effective body language. It also involves being a good listener, a more highly skilled thinker and a more effective observer. These values are embraced by the culture of Toastmasters and can be observed in the different roles and responsibilities of club members in weekly meetings.

Toastmasters is a one-of-a-kind organization with a culture that helps people build confidence and learn the skills necessary to become good public speakers and qualified leaders. In keeping with that goal, Toastmasters offers its members a great opportunity to mature as public speakers, express their personalities, and attain a higher rank in public speaking by providing an environment where members can reach this goal together as a team. Finally, Toastmasters is not only designed to provide people with the necessary skills, techniques and experience to handle various situations in public speaking, but it also brings to light to its members the many ways in which language plays such an important a role in their lives.

Works Cited

“Find Your Voice. Serve Your World.” The Toastmaster Sept. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <>
Cy-Fair Super Speakers. Weekly Meeting. Cy-Fair Chamber of Commerce. Houston, TX. 21 Nov. 2005
District Newsletter: Toastmasters International. Nov. 2005. 1 Dec. 2005 <>
Lacagnina, Shawn, Shirley Valenziano and Chuck Quinn. Personal interview. 21 Nov. 2005.
Toastmasters. Accredited Speaker Program: Rules & Application. <>
Toastmasters. Expanding Your Horizons: Success/Leadership Programs & Success Communication Programs. < Horizons.pdf>
Toastmasters. Find Your Voice <>
Toastmasters. The Ice Breaker <


Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.