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Erasing All Doubts

Corporate club measures its worth

 By Beth MacNeil Stinson, DTM

The questions hung in the air. During a club-officer meeting, our president asked, “Why don't more people attend our meetings?”

The vice president education asked, “Why don't members finish their CCs?”

Figuring out the answers to those two questions was vital to keeping our young corporate club alive. The members of Blackboard Bbuzz are employees of Blackboard Inc., an education software company headquartered in Washington, D.C. As a corporate club, we have many things going for us, including support from top company leadership. Our president and CEO gave an Ice Breaker during one meeting and was evaluated by a club member. The Human Resources department helps recruit members in its new-employee orientation program. Our meetings take place in a state-of-the-art conference room, and we have a generous budget that covers lunch for most meetings.

So why didn’t people attend meetings and finish 10 speeches? The answers, we discovered, had to do with our failure to demonstrate -- using measurable results -- the value we bring to our organization. Just like they would expect from any other business proposal, our employees expected an onsite Toastmasters club to make a solid business case–with data-driven evidence–that participation in Toastmasters is worthwhile.

What follows is the story of how Blackboard Bbuzz demonstrated the value we’ve been bringing to our company through innovative programs and workshops that are open to all employees. Such activities allow the club to achieve its goals, while employees reach their goals: becoming better communicators. Our entire company benefits as a result.

About Our Club
Our company creates enterprise-level software applications for education. Many of our employees are engineers, programmers, system administrators, technical support agents and project managers. They are highly motivated, highly technical, and data driven. Without seeing the tangible advantages of regular club meeting participation, the members were not convinced it was worth their time and effort to attend regularly or give more than two or three speeches. They just did not see the direct relevance of Toastmasters skills to their daily job responsibilities.

Facing these challenges, our club officers needed to present evidence that we added value to the company. Our club president then took the step of meeting with various department heads and asking how we could help their employees become better communicators. He brought their feedback and ideas back to our club officers, and we held a brainstorming session. As a result, the club identified two main areas where we could serve our company: helping people make better presentations and helping them network.

Most company employees make presentations internally to other departments and externally to our clients. We use PowerPoint and often use teleconferencing or web conferencing tools. Being passive participants in many of these presentations gave us Toastmasters a chance to observe presenters' strengths and weaknesses and devise a way to help improve presentation skills across the company.

Our club created a program that offered a private review, with oral and written feedback, to any employee scheduled to make a presentation. We offered this service through the managers of each department; managers could recommend that their employees schedule a review with our club to gain valuable feedback. By participating as reviewers, club members also benefited, practicing critical thinking skills and evaluation techniques.

We registered great results. All employees who participated said their presentation skills improved. As an added bonus, a club member who was a reviewer successfully competed in the Area Evaluation Contest. These successes directly affect the way our company is now regarded by our clients and in our community. They improve our collective ability to share critical technical information while also giving positive feedback.

Managers have noticed the improvements and even noted it in employees' annual performance reviews.
By having a place to practice where supportive feedback is provided and a company goal is shared, employees can improve their presentation skills and be formally acknowledged for their efforts.

This formal review and acknowledgement gave our club the first data it needed to make a business case for our importance.

Every year our company hosts client conferences around the world, culminating in our annual conference that includes workshops, networking and a chance for clients to meet the people who build the software they use every day. Many clients report that the biggest reason they attend is for the networking opportunities. However, when client evaluations were processed for past events, the networking skills of some employees were rated low. Networking opportunities were being lost during the most important client event of the year – one that was a major investment for our business.

To address this issue, our club designed a program in conjunction with the Human Resources department. We produced a two-hour interactive workshop on networking skills. A team of Toastmasters led the discussion and fun interactive exercises for the 80 employees who attended. We helped employees improve their networking skills by demonstrating how to creatively introduce themselves, how to write and deliver a dynamic "elevator speech" and how to efficiently "work" a room to meet with as many people as possible.

The internal feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Employees were able to put their new skills to work almost immediately at the next conference, which was held soon after the networking program. Client feedback now rates employees’ networking the highest in years.

This second piece of data helped to make our business case.

Our efforts have paid off. Armed with the data collected from these two successful programs, we’ve been able to convince members to attend more meetings and complete more speeches. In 2007-2008 – only our second year – Blackboard Bbuzz earned Distinguished Club status. We had another strong year in 2008-2009, reaching Select Distinguished status, producing an excellent educational program and drawing a robust membership. 

Beth MacNeil Stinson, DTM, is a member of Blackboard Bbuzz Toastmasters in Washington, D.C.. Beth can be reached at