Shhh. Come closer. Don’t tell, but I’m about to expose the biggest secret in Toastmasters. For a lot of Toastmasters, membership is about getting over the fear of public speaking. For some, it’s about reducing ahs and ums. For others, it’s about improving their ability to manage a team or lead a meeting. While it’s important, of course, to learn all of those things, almost all Toastmasters will tell you that opportunities for networking are also important. The relationships you build with mentors, contest opponents turned friends, and new people you meet at conventions are indispensable reasons why Toastmasters everywhere are successful and fulfilled enough to remain members for years.
I attended the 2009 Toastmasters International Convention in Mashantucket, Connecticut, with the intention of doing research on networking within Toastmasters. Beyond all expectations, I made contacts with interesting, accomplished speakers from around the world. Not only did I find experienced people to interview, I made a new business contact in Canada and reconnected with old friends. Opportunities abound when you open your eyes to them. You can create a strategic alliance, make a new friend or find a new job. It’s true that networking might take you out of your comfort zone. So what? Didn’t you prepare to leap over the boundaries of your comfort zone the moment you joined Toastmasters?
Give of Yourself and It Comes Back Tenfold
Past District 59 Governor Odile Petillot has found networking opportunities within her home club and beyond. Her bilingual club in Paris, The Europeans, gains an average of 16 new members each year from all over the world, in places such as Spain, Russia, Ireland, Japan, Germany, Argentina and North America. She enjoys learning about the new members’ countries and cultures, but she and fellow club members also benefit from business relationships sometimes formed with these new members.
Petillot maintains that the first step to better networking is to become a club officer. She elaborates: “The higher you go up the [leadership] ladder [in Toastmasters], the more you extend your horizon and the circle of potential relationships. When I was the governor of District 59, I had a team of 40 people working with me in 17 European countries – the number of countries in our district at the time. I learned how to work with people whose methods and characteristics were very different from mine. It was a lifetime experience; I can’t thank our organization enough for giving me this unique opportunity to grow and get to know so many different people.”
Writer Anais Nin said, “Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it.” Remember each smile, extended hand or words of wisdom from a mentor. And remember that life is cyclical. Sometimes you receive the words of encouragement and sometimes you give them. Most Toastmasters will tell you that they found the biggest gift when giving back to a person, their club or the organization as a whole. Networking is mentoring, giving back, learning, growing and building relationships in all capacities. It’s extremely beneficial in all aspects of our lives – and yet somewhat daunting to execute. Here are some easy steps you can take to improve your networking skills.
Some Fine Tips
I learned a great deal from Debra Fine, professional speaker and bestselling author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Rapport and Leave a Positive Impression. Fine offers many helpful tips, but one jewel that stood out for me was, “Assume the burden of other people’s comfort.”
It can be uncomfortable to start a conversation or join a group of people. As I looked around at my fellow attendees during the last International Convention, many were talking on cell phones or reading the Convention program. I realized many of those people were probably just trying to look busy so they could avoid the discomfort of speaking to someone new. I’m one of the more gregarious people (some may say obnoxious or forward) and I still felt uncomfortable walking up to people I didn’t know. I could only imagine how uneasy more reserved or introverted individuals might feel.
So I decided to “assume the burden of other people’s comfort.” I began a conversation with a very nice but somewhat nervous woman in line. She seemed startled at first but then opened up. She was a new member and had the advantage of living within driving distance of the conference. How brave she was to jump feet-first into a convention with thousands of people from around the world!
Fine also offers tips on meeting new people and writes: “Don’t sit with someone you know.” She says we often use people we know as a crutch, but we have to remember that networking is about meeting new people, finding future resources and making connections. A few months ago, several members of my home club attended a Toastmasters Leadership Institute. As we looked for seats in the auditorium, we naturally chose a row where we could sit together. I thought about Ms. Fine’s words and realized that we were missing out on a golden opportunity to meet new people. You certainly wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by abandoning your group. However, you could arrange an agreement ahead of time by saying something like, “How about we each sit at a different table, then afterward introduce each other to the interesting new people we met?” Who could resist that opportunity?
At this same training, I learned about an international networking experience involving Toastmasters in a talk given by Dr. Ward Thrasher, assistant dean and MBA director for the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut (the sponsor for the event). Dr. Thrasher mentioned a strategic relationship that may lead to a new Toastmasters club in China. While teaching as an adjunct professor in China, he was approached for advice on enhancing a new program aimed at improving the doctors’ English communication at a local hospital. Of course, Dr. Thrasher included Toastmasters in his recommendations, and the hospital has considering starting a new club.
When I asked Dr. Thrasher about his advice on networking, he said, “Networking is not an event-driven process. Anyone you interact with is an opportunity. You don’t know what bridge is going to lead to what destination.” So take those business cards with you everywhere. You might run into someone at the grocery store who would benefit from Toastmasters. Or you might end up affecting someone’s life halfway around the world.
Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Every person you meet leaves a piece of himself with you...and you with him. Now that you know the secret gem of Toastmasters – be open to networking within your club, at contests, conferences and the International Convention. Step outside your comfort zone and take on an officer position – or simply start a conversation.
Don’t let your networking end when you leave your meeting or a conference. Join a Toastmasters group on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. When you join an online group, you are instantly connected to a wealth of expertise. You can post a question and receive responses and suggestions from Toastmasters all over the globe. Pranay Juyal, past president of Infosys Toastmasters in Bangalore, India, uses many of these applications, though LinkedIn is his favorite. Whether online or in person, Juyal is certain of the power of meeting others and says, “Networking is the single most important tool I use in Toastmasters.”
So the next time you are talking to a prospective new member, don’t just say, “You’ll grow and challenge yourself as a speaker.” Also say, “When you join Toastmasters, you’ll meet the most amazing group of people ever!
Heather O’Neill is a writer, speaker and the VPPR for the Barnum Square Toastmasters in Bethel, Connecticut. She is a small-business owner who has grown her business primarily through the power of networking. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Networking Tips from Conversation Expert Debra Fine:
- Don’t wait to start until you need something ...start today. Increase your visibility now.
- Assume the burden of other people’s comfort. Come prepared with topics you can discuss and questions to ask. If you are going to a convention, you can ask attendees about exhibits they recommend, what they liked about a breakout session or the best practices of their home club.
- Learn each person’s name. If you don’t think you understood it properly, repeat it – several times if necessary – until you do. Taking the time to learn and repeat a person’s name in conversation demonstrates respect.
- Don’t get too personal. Asking a tactful question like, “What keeps you busy outside of work?” doesn’t make an assumption about the person but gives them the chance to divulge what they wish about themselves.
- Respect differences. Follow the actions of others to build comfort, particularly when talking with people from different countries. Let them lead. Model your behavior after theirs (eye contact, handshake, etc.) to respect any cultural differences.
- Give a full response. If someone asks you a question, try not to respond with a bland “good.” Elaborate to give them something they can connect with.