Excellence is listed as the fourth of Toastmasters’ guiding principles, not because it has the least value, but rather because it offers stability to what would otherwise be a three-legged stool. The other three principles—integrity, respect and service—are meaningless if quality is not their end. We witness and experience the quality of Toastmasters in our club meetings.
In other words, the time and effort put forth by the Toastmasters International staff to develop materials doesn’t matter if clubs do not use them to perform their best. Each member is the keeper and the carrier of Toastmasters excellence—and we maintain excellence by sharing through mentorship.
In 1994 I met a woman while on my way to attend Toastmasters International’s annual convention. She, too, was traveling to the convention, and she was going to present a workshop. We took a cab together and talked about Toastmasters.
To my surprise she knew who I was, having won the World Championship of Public Speaking two years earlier. She asked why I was still in Toastmasters, and explained that she left after becoming a professional speaker. I replied that I remain in Toastmasters because I have an obligation to give to others what was given to me. In today’s parlance I would say that I had Toastmasters mentors—Paris and Lucille Lanham, Jeanne Nelson and Joe Sweeney—who freely shared with me their knowledge and wisdom. I now have the responsibility to mentor the members of my club and Toastmasters around the globe who seek to know what I know.
In Homer’s poem, the Odyssey, written in 800 B.C., the character Mentor has the responsibility to teach Telemachus the social norms of manhood. Telemachus’ father, Odysseus, left home to fight in the Trojan War when his son was an infant. Odysseus asked his friend Mentor to perform the role of father. Given that Telemachus trusted what Mentor taught him, the Goddess Athena assumed the disguise of Mentor to encourage Telemachus to leave home to search for his father when his father failed to return after the war. Nearly three millennia after Homer wrote the Odyssey, we use the term “mentor” to refer to a person who shares knowledge, imparts wisdom and encourages action.
“The success of each Toastmasters club depends on its members’ willingness to serve as mentors.”
The success and quality of each Toastmasters club depends on its members’ willingness to serve as mentors. Unlike the classroom of an educational institution, no one person is appointed to teach. Those of us who teach today were yesterday’s students; today’s students must become tomorrow’s teachers. This cycle of mentoring is required to maintain the viability of a Toastmasters club. The quality of the club depends on the content of the mentoring. Speakers in the Wind in Sun Village, California, one of three clubs of which I am a member, maintains a high standard of excellence. From its members and meetings, and from my experience visiting Toastmasters districts and clubs around the world, here is what I have gleaned as relevant to mentoring excellence.
Purpose. Every Toastmasters club has a purpose beyond the institutional purpose of making leaders. One club may be formed for employees of a company to hone their communication and leadership skills. Another may exist specifically to work on a single presentation skill such as storytelling. Still another might exist to prepare members for speech contests. The quality of the club is maintained when members know why the club exists.
Each meeting must have a purpose as well. Generally, the purpose is to give members opportunities to practice their communication and leadership skills. Sometimes, however, the focus of the meeting may change, for example, to celebrate club successes, orient new members or conduct an open house. Knowing the purpose guides the planning for the meeting.
Administration. The quality of a club is diminished when it fails to keep current with its administrative matters. Accurate and up-to-date records must be kept of its business, financial and meeting activities. Reports to World Headquarters must be submitted timely.
Relationships. Meaningful mentoring requires a relationship built on trust, as evident in the relationship between Mentor and Telemachus. A club member must have the confidence that each member has at heart the best interest of every other member.
Plan. Quality is more likely to result from a plan—a plan for the year (e.g., the Distinguished Club plan) as well as for meeting agendas. I have participated in grab-bag meetings where a member chooses a meeting role from a bag on the day of the meeting. The purpose of that plan was to practice flexibility and readiness to take on any role.
Promotion. Promote meetings to members who have been absent for a while and to the community. If people don’t know about your meeting, they can’t put it on their schedule to attend.
Location. The meeting’s setting must be conducive to enjoyable learning. It must be a place where participants can sit comfortably and speakers can be seen and heard. If it is held at a restaurant, attendees should arrive early enough have a meal before the meeting begins.
Preparation. Speakers should arrive early with props, visual aids, etc. Speech evaluators should know the objectives of each speech. Other participants, such as the word master or joke master, should come prepared with material.
Promptness. Starting and ending a meeting on time is quality performance. On the other hand, quality is not compromised because the written times on the agenda are not met. The timed agenda should be seen as an estimate, not a mandate.
Performance. Every member holding a leadership position in the club and every person playing a role in the meeting must perform to their best ability to achieve the meeting’s purpose.
Participation. Roles should be pre-assigned and Table Topics speakers chosen to ensure that the maximum number of members and guests may participate in the meeting.
Presentations. What you say in a presentation is as important as how you say it. Style should never supersede substance.
Protocol. When guests and new members are present, the meeting formalities we’ve learned in Toastmasters must be practiced. Less formal meetings may be appropriate among club members who are familiar with proper protocol.
Priorities. When circumstances demand flexibility, it is important to know the meeting’s priorities. Adjustments to the agenda can then be made to still fulfill the meeting purpose.
Growth. The day a club stops growing is the day it begins dying. Likewise, when a member stops growing in his communication and leadership skills, it marks the beginning of the end of his Toastmasters experience. The opportunity to mentor a fellow Toastmaster is an opportunity for both the protégé and the mentor to grow. Changed circumstances, such as Toastmasters’ new Pathways learning experience, also offers opportunities for growth. The quality of the club depends on a mentor’s ability to spot opportunities for growth, and to encourage it.
Relevance. Membership in Toastmasters and our meeting experiences have no value if they are not relevant to our lives. Mentor’s task was not to keep his protégé occupied until his father returned; his responsibility was to prepare Telemachus for life as an adult.
If these principles are included in our mentoring, we can and will ensure the quality of our clubs. A mentor uses words to share knowledge and impart wisdom; that’s communication. A mentor must also demonstrate the teaching method by serving as a role model; that’s leadership.
For more inspiration on mentorship in Toastmasters, read these Meet My Mentor articles.
Dana LaMon, DTM, AS is the 1992 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking. He is a member of three clubs in Lancaster, California, and an Accredited Speaker. Reach him at email@example.com.