Editor's Note: The Board of Directors met on March 14, 2020, to discuss options to protect and support members, club leaders, and District leaders due to the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19). After much deliberation, the Board made the decision, effectively immediately, that Area, Division, or District events can no longer be conducted in person, on or prior to June 1, 2020. As an alternative, Areas, Divisions, and Districts are encouraged to host events online. For more information about this change, please visit the COVID-19 page on the Toastmasters International website.
Toastmasters offers a lot of value at an affordable price, doesn’t it? And that is just at the club level.
While the club is the hub of the Toastmasters experience, and the Pathways learning experience is the primary training vehicle, many other training opportunities exist that further enhance the value of your membership.
One event you will hear a great deal about in the next few months is the 2020 Toastmasters International Convention, scheduled for August 5–8 in Paris, France. It provides the chance to hear world-class speakers and meet fellow members from around the world. It is certainly an event worth experiencing. But not everyone can attend, at least not every year.
There is, however, a smaller-scale version that provides many of the same benefits as the convention, and that is the District conference. All Districts hold an annual conference, usually in April or May. You can visit your District’s website to learn about the conference, including where and when it will be held and what speakers and events will be featured.
The District conference has a special meaning for me. It was here that I made a connection that revealed a talent I didn’t know I had. It opened up a whole new dimension to my professional pursuits. More on that later.
So, what can you expect to get out of the experience?
As I view it, the conferences have four main benefits.
One major advantage is the additional, high-level training provided. The training might focus on speaking skills. Or leadership skills. Or the mechanics of the Toastmasters system, as evidenced by programs like Pathways.
District conferences combine the International Convention’s learning opportunities with the chance to talk with and actually get to know the key speakers.
Rose Kirland, DTM, Past District 49 Director in Hawaii, says the first District conference she attended was a revelation. “I learned from one speaker the value of listening. The tip helped me make gainful strides in my business and personal life. It literally changed the way I looked at things. It changed my life.”
The educational benefits alone are reason enough to attend the conference.
I see this as the “vertical aspect” of the conference. As we work to improve our speaking and leadership skills in Toastmasters, we reach upward to a higher standard. But how high do we reach? If our experience is limited, our reach is, likewise, limited. The District conference provides a higher-level experience.
First of all, it features a keynote speaker, frequently a high-profile one, either from Toastmasters or from the local community. This, in and of itself, can show you a much higher caliber of speaking than you may have previously encountered.
The conference also features your District’s leaders. It is, after all, their event and responsibility. Here you see members who, through years of service, have honed their leadership skills—the same ones you may aspire to develop.
Then there are the Toastmasters speech contests. All contests at the District level have to be held at the District conference. That includes the International Speech Contest and may include others, like the Table Topics and Evaluation contests. All these contests advance through the club, Area, Division, and District levels. That means only the best of the best speakers in your District make it this far in a speech contest. And when it comes to the International Speech Contest, the winner here advances to the region quarterfinals.
“The level of contestants is something to be experienced,” says Steve Goldstein, DTM, District 115 Director in southern Nevada.
If you want to see what good speakers look and sound like, you need to attend this event.
I see this as the “horizontal aspect” of the conference. If we never venture outside our club, we may have the perception that Toastmasters is a group of small, independent enclaves. Yes, we see Pathways. Yes, we receive a monthly magazine. But we may not see much beyond that. When you attend a District conference, you get a much bigger picture of the organization and the possibilities, especially if you are interested in building your leadership skills.
“One needs to step outside your own club’s comfort, be open to the big picture, the global world of Toastmasters,” says Kirland, the Past District 49 Director. “The conference is ideal to learn more than what your club may offer. It’s a happy place to learn and grow!”
Be sure to attend the District Council Meeting. This is technically the reason the conference is held in the first place. The Council is the District’s governing body and consists of the Presidents and Vice Presidents Education of all the clubs in the District; all District officers; the Division Directors and Area Directors; and any other members of the District leadership team.
At the conference, the Council conducts District business and makes decisions that affect all clubs in the District. The group votes on items that can include electing District officers, changing District bylaws and procedures, approving budgets, and more. There is no better place to watch your District leaders in action. Who knows? You might just find yourself wanting to serve in that role. Go for it.
How can you apply what you observe and learn to your job and your club? And where can that lead you?
Plenty of opportunities exist to meet people—in sessions, at meals, in the hallways. George Jarosik, DTM, Past District 39 Director, has been to 19 District conferences and says, “I learn so much from connecting with fellow Toastmasters and meeting new members.” His advice: “Attend everything, meet everybody.”
I have developed good friendships with my fellow contestants in the speech contests. Competition might not be your interest, but there are so many other possibilities. Focus on your core interests, and you are sure to meet others with similar interests.
If you want to become a better speaker, get to know the keynoters and trainers. Strike up a conversation with your favorite contestants. A conference highlight for Jarosik was meeting the 2012 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, Ryan Avery, DTM, and asking him what it took to win the prestigious contest.
Or introduce yourself to the District leaders. Although they will be busy running the event, they will be happy to meet you and to explain the value of Toastmasters leadership.
Some contacts, however, are not planned. My most memorable moment came one year when I was what is now an Area Director. I sat down at a luncheon table and introduced myself to the person to my right. It turns out that she was a member of one of the clubs in my Area. She was also an editor at the Toastmaster magazine.
During our conversation, she asked my advice on an issue related to the Toastmasters education program. As a club Vice President Education, I had this conversation frequently with my club members, so I had a ready answer.
About two months later I received an email from her. She had pitched my thoughts to the magazine team, and her email offered me an opportunity to write an article for the magazine. That led to several more articles, and ultimately, my own monthly column (Toastmasters Toolbox). This still amazes me, because writing was my worst subject in high school. I discovered a new skill that I never knew I had, and, through it, I have made contacts throughout the world, all because I attended a District conference.
What will you gain by attending your District conference? Education, inspiration, vision, connection, and many other possible benefits. Who will you hear? Who will you meet? What will you see that will challenge you to reach higher, to go bigger, or to move in a whole new direction?
There is only one way to find out. Attend your conference. It just may be an experience you will never forget.
Bill Brown, DTM is a speech delivery coach from Las Vegas and a member of Ahead of the Curve Toastmasters. Learn more by visiting his website.