Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I was at a low point in my life when I joined Toastmasters International. I had heard of the organization before and knew it provided a venue to improve your speaking skills. It exceeded my expectations. My communication skills improved but more important, my confidence soared.

Toastmasters, in case you have not heard of it, is a large and distinguished 84-year old organization. From its website, I quote:
From a humble beginning in 1924 at the YMCA in Santa Ana, California, Toastmasters International has grown to become a world leader in helping people become more competent and comfortable in front of an audience. The nonprofit organization now has nearly 235,000 members in 11,700 clubs in 92 countries, offering a proven – and enjoyable! – way to practice and hone communication and leadership skills.

Most Toastmasters meetings are comprised of approximately 20 people who meet weekly for an hour or two. Participants practice and learn skills by filling a meeting role, ranging from giving a prepared speech or an impromptu one to serving as timer, evaluator or grammarian.

There is no instructor; instead, each speech and meeting is critiqued by a member in a positive manner, focusing on what was done right and what could be improved.

Good communicators tend to be good leaders. Some well-known Toastmasters alumni include:
  1. Peter Coors of Coors Brewing Company
  2. Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies
  3. Tom Peters, management expert and author
  4. Linda Lingle, Governor of Hawaii


You might have heard that in the list of top ten fears, public speaking ranks higher than death itself! In one list, fear of public speaking occupies the third position, only after fear of failure and fear of rejection. Toastmasters will help you conquer that fear. You might have also heard that you get back what you put into it. This is especially true for this club. Alas, many members start but only about 25% remain active enough to finish the beginner’s program.


A neophyte is given a goal when s/he joins. The goal is to become a Certified ToastMaster (CTM). The certification was renamed several years and is now known as Certified Communicator. A second initial goal is to become a Competent Leader (CL). Click here to read about these two tracks of the educational program. Incidentally, one of the skills you will learn in addition to speaking well is listening. Active listening is rarely practiced but it is an important aspect of communication.
Stop and think about your formal education. How many years were you taught how to write? How many years were you taught to speak? How many minutes were you taught how to listen? If you’re similar to 99% of us, your answer to the last question will be nil. Active listening requires one to shut down all the other conversations going through one’s mind while communicating with other people. Once you learn how to listen actively, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the natural improvement of your communication skills.
Membership dues are very affordable. Toastmasters is a non-profit organization. The dues vary slightly from club to club but it hovers around $75 to $80 for one year! That is only about $6.50 a month. Clubs typically meet on a weekly or biweekly basis. At each meeting, the more experienced members assume various roles. The more active roles are that of the Toastmaster for the meeting, the Assistant Toastmaster, the Evaluators, the Timer, and the Grammarian.
It takes ten timed speeches spaced over many months that are delivered before the group to earn your CTM. It takes several leadership positions in Toastmaster events to earn your CL.

The format works because the speaker—the person who joined specifically to overcome his/her fear of public speaking—will speak in front of a sympathetic audience. Nobody will ridicule you. And you will have an attentive audience. Every speech is evaluated—in writing and in a speech. Written evaluations are submitted by everyone present at the meeting (even guests are usually invited to evaluate). The spoken evaluations take the form of a speech given by the official Evaluator. To recap, you give your speech, everyone fills in a written evaluation that you receive before the meeting ends, and another member, your official Evaluator, will stand up and evaluate your speech in his or her own speech!
In addition to the usual club activities, the district that your club belongs to, holds speech contests. Toastmaster’s hierarchy in ascending order starts with the:
  1. Club
  2. Area
  3. District
  4. Region
  5. World


I belonged to a club called “People Into Public Speaking.” We met (and they still do) every Monday lunchtime at the world headquarters of McDonald’s Corporation in Oak Brook, Illinois. Our club belonged to Area-5. The area, in turn, was a part of the Chicagoland district. We belonged to a region that encompassed four or five states.


There are district-level contests and world-champion contests. Yes, there is a world champion every year. I am proud to say that the 2005-06 world champion of public speaking, Ed Hearn, came from the Chicagoland district! And he won it on his first attempt! The current world champion is the first woman, a black woman, to win the crown. Many world champions become professional speakers or coaches and easily earn six figures.

The 75th president of the parent organization, Toastmasters International, from 2006 to 07 is a Filipino, the first Asian, to hold that distinguished post.

Here are several sites that discuss Toastmasters.
  1. World Champion Speakers
  2. Ed Hearn, 2005-06 World Champion Speaker
  3. The Olympics of Oratory
This posting turned into a ringing endorsement of Toastmasters even though it was not my intention! Well, it represents my feeling about the organization. I was active for three years, from 2002 to 2005, and earned my CTM and CL. I definitely plan to rejoin it in the future.

It is great fun and it is a self-improvement commitment as well.
I urge you to consider it as well.

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Friday, May 2, 2008


One of the more difficult aspects of working for a boss is learning the boss’s communication and decision styles. Considering that the single most significant factor in determining your job satisfaction is your relationship with your boss, it pays to pay attention to that. In turn, when you’re the boss, you should communicate your personal style clearly.

(Dilbert's Pointy-haired Boss, inspired by my PM professor)

Here’s one technique I learned early in my project management “bossing” career from a mentor.

Create a list of guidelines for your team. Its purpose is to communicate the ground rules for interaction. This was one of my early lists.
  1. I strongly believe in trust and dependability. If somebody says that they’ll do something, they should. If some unforeseen circumstance interferes, that person has the responsibility of notifying all that will be affected. If s/he wasn’t able to do that before the event, s/he must do it with an apology and explanation as soon as possible. And, may I add, to not do this repeatedly.
  2. I will treat you professionally and I expect the same.
  3. Refrain from accepting or committing to changes to the project unless you have that authority. All changes must go through the change control process. All requests, regardless of the medium it was sent in (e.g., email) must be transcribed to the official change request form.
  4. Email headings. Maximize the use of the subject line. Identify the nature of the message according to its content. An email for action should be labeled ACTION. An FYI should be labeled FYI. Incidentally, I can’t think of any other type of email besides a Call for Action or an FYI. If I missed a category, please advise me.
  5. Email headings again. Break the chain! At some point, it becomes silly to continue receiving and sending emails with the same heading over and over again. Here's what I mean: ACTION ----> re: ACTION ----> re: re: ACTION ----> re: re: re: ACTION ----> re: re: re: re: ACTION. Please break the chain!
  6. Email length. Keep it to several paragraphs if possible. Longer content should be created as a separate document (e.g., Word or Excel) and attached to the email.
  7. Email legalese. Our employer can legally monitor all email sent through its facilities. This includes your personal emails.
  8. Email ccs and bccs. Refrain from carbon copying (that’s what “cc” stands for) and blind carbon copying (“bcc”) persons who do not need to know. CC-ing me to protect your rear may work but it may also lead me to form an incorrect impression about you.
  9. Presentations. We’ve all heard of “death by PowerPoint.” If the expression is unfamiliar, please Google it. Learn how to make effective presentations.
  10. Start and end meetings on time. Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, distribute the agenda at least 18 hours before the meeting.
  11. It is sometimes easier to seek forgiveness than to ask permission. If you have to make a decision and, for whatever reason, you aren’t able to contact me or another manager, decide in the best interests of the company. You can do it.
  12. I enjoy receiving most surprise presents from my family. I do not enjoy most surprises that come from stakeholders, customers, and fellow employees. Please advise me if you see something that should be brought to my attention.
  13. Grammar and spelling. There are checkers in MS Word. Please use them. Typos and bad grammar annoy me especially if customers will read them.
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