My Turn: Reflecting on Ralph Smedley's Words

My Turn: Reflecting on Ralph Smedley's Words

Photo Caption: Dr. Ralph Smedley pictured in his office in the late 1950’s.

I attended my first Toastmasters meeting back in 1965, with the South Denver Toastmasters in Colorado. That night, we started the session with a few moments of silence in memory of Dr. Ralph C. Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters International, who had passed away the week before. The South Denver club was eventually renamed the Bob Ord Toastmasters in honor of longtime member Bob Ord, who often quoted Dr. Smedley when urging new members to take risks and try out ideas:

“Your Toastmasters club is your laboratory in which to try experiments in better communication,” Smedley wrote in a 1955 issue of the Toastmaster magazine. “You can try anything once [in front of] this frank but sympathetic audience, and you can learn by listening to their comments.”

When I served on the Toastmasters Board of Directors from 1970 to 1972, a fellow director, Al Burlingame, gave me the book Personally Speaking. Published by Toastmasters International the year after Smedley passed away, the 114-page volume is a collection of excerpts from Smedley’s writings in the Toastmaster magazine over the years. Al had known Dr. Smedley personally and greatly admired him.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet Smedley, his words in this book have served as a great source of guidance and inspiration to me. I have belonged to nine clubs in three different cities, and my Toastmasters journey has been one of self-discovery, enjoyment and confidence-building.

The organization’s 85th anniversary is a particularly fitting time to reflect on the principles, ideals and goals of Ralph Smedley. In that spirit, here are some of my favorite excerpts from Personally Speaking:

“Let’s ‘keep it simple’: Many…have written about public speaking in the intervening centuries, but they have not changed the simple basic principles, nor have they added very much to them.” (pg. 1)

“Toastmasters is a ‘do-it-yourself’ activity…Don’t be afraid to use your imagination and initiative…Listen to others and evaluate their thinking – then form your own conclusions and speak for yourself.” (pg. 1)

“Toastmasters is based on belief in the individual…Many organizations ask the individual to subordinate himself to the group. Ours is the only organization I know that is dedicated to the individual.” (pg. 2)

“The personal touch, in all levels of our work, is one of [Toastmasters’] distinguishing features. We are working together.” (pg. 6)

“The simple fact is that we grow or learn or work better when we enjoy what we are doing, and this is essentially the secret of success in Toastmasters. Our meetings are made enjoyable by a fine, helpful fellowship, in a pleasant, social atmosphere, with activities carefully planned…” (pg. 11)

“The ability to approach an audience in [a] friendly style is partly a gift of nature, and partly a cultivated art. It is worth cultivating if you want to be as effective as possible in your speech.” (pg. 78)

“It is always the speaker’s responsibility to make his speech effective. If he does that, applaud him, commend him, vote for him, even though he violated all the rules in the book… The test of the speech is not in following the textbook, but in making the sale.” (pg. 80)

“The first result of speech training is self-discovery.” (pg. 109)

Editor’s Note: The book Personally Speaking (Item B63) is offered by Toastmasters International at

Watt Pye, DTM, is a member of the Timberline and Gates to Excellence Toastmasters clubs, both located in Denver, Colorado. The longtime journalist was a member of Toastmasters' Board of Directors from 1970-’72. Reach him at