At Microsoft, Toastmasters Clubs are PC

Jason Black’s first stab at speaking in front of groups came when he was a teenager: In high school, he took a public-speaking class – one where the students gave speeches and critiqued each other. Unfortunately, the experience did more damage than good.

“My high school peers were not exactly the most supportive audience,” he says wryly. “That class left me with a lot of trepidation about public speaking, and that feeling never left me.”

But years later, when Black began working as an engineer at Microsoft – and had to make presentations to colleagues or pitch ideas to clients – he knew it was time to overcome this fear. Following a suggestion from his boss, he joined an in-house Toastmasters club at the software giant.

“It’s been a tremendously supportive environment for working on public speaking skills,” says Black, who last June became president of the group, called The Early Birds. (They meet weekly at 8 a.m.) “Here, we’re all in the same position… Other members aren’t going to laugh at you if you flub something up. The worst thing that can happen is you’re not going to get the ‘Best Speaker’ ribbon, right?

That I can live with.”

Ultimately, Toastmasters has made him a better communicator in his job, adds Black, who works at corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington. His experience mirrors those of other Microsoft employees involved in their in-house Toastmasters clubs; they say they’ve become more comfortable and confident speaking in the workplace – whether that be to colleagues, clients or customers.

Because all club members are Microsoft employees, each is particularly understanding of the challenges faced by the others at work. And because of this, colleagues are in a great position to offer many helpful suggestions to each other.

“I go every week – I really love it,” says Henrieta Riesco, who works at the Redmond offices. “For me, the way it helps me is that every week I’m practicing. My job is dealing with computers, but there’s not a lot of talking; this way, once a week I have the chance to be in a group who wants to talk.”

She adds that she enjoys interacting with fellow employees in a different context than the regular work environment. “I like talking about things outside of work – that excites me,” notes Riesco, who is the Speechmakers club’s vice president education. “I think it’s great that people talk about all sorts of interesting things at the meetings. It’s a glimpse into the things they really care about.”

The first Toastmasters group at Microsoft was chartered in 1990. Now Microsoft has three clubs at its Redmond campus – two for full-time employees, and one for other workers such as contractors and vendors. The corporate behemoth allows its employees to use conference rooms for the meetings, which can be held during the work day. Microsoft also has Toastmasters clubs at its other office locations around the world, including Seoul, Korea, and Shanghai and Beijing in China.

Louie Lu, the president of the MSSH Toastmasters No. 1 club in Shanghai, says preparing speeches for his group, and gaining the feedback of evaluators, has helped him in his work as a technical support engineer. “Now I can deliver more structured information to our customer and make sure we have no problem in understanding each other,” he says.

Lu’s Toastmasters club just started up this past February. The topics of the speeches he’s given reflect some of the cultural differences between China and the United States. For example, in one such talk he persuaded fellow Toastmasters to stop using throwaway chopsticks – an issue that probably isn’t discussed in American clubs, like those in Microsoft’s Dallas offices.

However, other subjects transcend geographical borders: Lu has spoken about how love can change a person’s life, and how one’s perspective on things affects their ability to find happiness.

Employees also say Toastmasters has helped them make the adjustment when switching jobs at Microsoft. Jim Bresler is an example. He recently went from being a software developer to a program manager at the Redmond campus in Washington. The latter job, he notes, involves much more interaction with customers and a more managerial role with colleagues. 

                    "Toastmasters is a good forum for networking with Microsoft employees
                    who work in other departments at the giant company."

“I think talking confidently to co-workers is very important, and Toastmasters has helped me a lot with that,” says Bresler, who joined the Speechmakers club around the same time he began working at Microsoft, in the summer of 2005, and became its president last summer.

The Table Topics portion of the meetings has boosted his skills and confidence the most, Bresler says. “I rarely have to give a prepared speech [in my job],” he says, “but it’s very common to have someone challenge a suggestion I make at work, and to have to think off the top of my head how to respond to it.”

Black says learning the importance of practicing a speech over and over helped open up the world of public speaking for him. “I’ll practice in my guest room,” he says of his routine at home. “I’ll take out my 7-minute timer and practice the speech, and just keep doing it until I get it right.”

When he knows his talk really well, Black adds, it frees him to focus on other things such as eye contact and hand gestures.

Riesco says she’d eventually like to transition to teaching and training Microsoft employees – work in which communication skills are paramount. Toastmasters is helping her in this area. “I feel that now if I were to approach somebody [at Microsoft], to try to go from my current job to being involved with training, I’d feel more confident,” she says, “because I know I gave all these speeches. I speak in front of everyone almost every week.”

She adds that Toastmasters is a good forum for networking with Microsoft employees who work in other departments at the giant company. “So, for example, if you wanted to transfer to another department, you could tell [a department leader], ‘I know so-and-so – we worked together in Toastmasters.’”

Bresler recalls how nervous he was the first time he gave a speech in front of his Toastmasters group – “I was visibly shaking.” But the experience left him looking forward to the next time he would speak.

“People were so supportive,” he says. “I look back and see so many things I did wrong with that speech – there must have been a dozen problems I had. I could have gotten hammered on my evaluation, but the evaluator had enough tact to give me a couple of positive suggestions that I could work on.

“I was eager to come back so I could practice those things.”

Lu’s Shanghai club, which has about 30 registered members, gathers at 6 p.m. on Thursdays in a company meeting room. Soon after forming, the club hosted a contest for humorous speaking at Shanghai’s Microsoft offices. Lu says that event sparked great enthusiasm among Toastmasters members, who eagerly participated in the competition.

Bresler says one idea his group is pursuing is giving out some kind of T-shirt to members after they deliver their first speech. It’s another way to provide support and positive re-inforcement.

For Black, Toastmasters has been a tool that’s allowed him to communicate better in casual work meetings. “Table Topics has helped me to deliver concise messages on the fly,” he notes. “It’s great practice for that.”

And for larger, weekly staff meetings, which involve employees who work outside of Black’s immediate team and are structured a bit more formally, he says he plans beforehand the message he wants to stress to the group. “And then I’ll wait until the right moment during the meeting and deliver it like a mini-speech.”

This mindset is something he never could have imagined years ago, when the distressing memories of his high school class were all he associated with public speaking.

“What’s most interesting is that now I’m actually seeking out speaking opportunities – which I never would have done before,” Black says. “I would have thought, ‘Why? What fun would there be to that?’ I’m actually getting to the point now where there’s some fun to it.” 

Paul Sterman is a freelance writer living in Orange, California.