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"But what can I talk about?" Toastmaster tactics for tackling topics

Posted: - Modified: | presentation, speaking, tips, toastmasters

This is a talk I'm giving to the IBM Toronto Lab Toastmasters today. I should trim a few hundred words from it to get it to more comfortably fit in 5-7 minutes, but it's got the key points.

Today, we're going to transform the way you benefit from Toastmasters. Right now, ten people in this club have a speech scheduled. After this talk, I want each of you to sign up to give three speeches, all committed to in advance. Not only that, I want you to get into the habit of always working on a talk – and it's going to take you less time and give you more results than before.

"You're crazy, Sacha. What can I talk about? When am I going to find the time to work on it? It's not like I do interesting things, anyway."

I know. I'd be thinking that, too. But you're in Toastmasters, and it's not just so that you can spend lunch time listening to other people talk. I'm going to share three lessons I learned the hard way. If these three lessons help you get over the hump and get on with speaking, fantastic! Mission accomplished. If they don't, get in touch with me and we'll figure out what will.

So here's what I've learned about coming up with topics to talk about.


We have really high standards for ourselves. We want to be as insightful as New York Times columnists, as funny as standup comedians, and as persuasive as managers during performance reviews.

Me, I have days when I don't want to give a presentation because I'm sure that I'm going to suck.

Newsflash: It doesn't have to be brilliant. You don't have to be brilliant. In fact, if you're giving a Toastmasters presentation like this, even if you bore people, they're only bored for seven minutes. You're not going to ruin anyone's lunch, much less their life.

What about longer talks? As long as you're telling the truth in your title and abstract, then the organizer of the talk can decide if it's a great fit, and people can choose whether to show up or not – or whether to check their e-mail.

There are plenty of things you can share: everything from the structural determination of organic compounds to how to buy a car from the US. Pick one thing you've learned or experienced and put together a talk about it.

But there's a harder reality to this. The truth is that you don't get to be interesting until you go through the boring parts. Being interesting is hard work. You have to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it, and you can only do that by trying.

So after this talk, you're going to SIGN UP FOR YOUR NEXT TALK. When you finish that, you're going to sign up for your next talk, and the next, and the next. Always be working on your next talk.

Which brings us to secret #2.


You're not going to figure everything out on the first try. Have you ever heard stand-up comedians during their off hours? One of my friends was doing stand-up comedy. You could tell because whenever we met someone new, he'd tell the same joke. He'd change the timing. He'd change the words. He kept practising until he nailed each joke.

I looked up all the talks people gave in this Toastmasters club this year. There's one repeat. Everything else is all new, all the time.

Remember: It doesn't have to be new. REDUCE your effort by REUSING your talks and RECYCLING your ideas.

Don't be a one-trick pony, though. Make things better. How can you do that?

Do you have copies of your past speeches? What about your notes? Your conversations? Your ideas? If you don't keep at least some of that, you're throwing so much away.

Everything I work on goes into one big text file. I write as much as I can. Everyday, I take notes so that I can remember, because forgetting is such a waste of time.

I might write or present about a topic four or five times so that I can understand it better. It's part of the learning process.

I learn something about a topic every time I present it. It's part of the process.

Your topic doesn't have to be new. Go back and look at your old stuff. Start saving your work from now on: your talks, your notes, your ideas. Writing down notes is incredibly powerful. Over time, you'll build this amazing library that you can refer to any time you need. In fact, if you share it with people – and it's incredible when you do – you can get crazy return on investment. I have presentations from three years ago that people are still looking at, still learning from, because they can find those presentations through search engines.

Last secret. This is a big one.


I have a confession to make. I propose topics I don't know about, so that I can force myself to learn.

It's an amazing excuse to get going. When you've committed yourself to teaching people, you learn more deeply. And you've got a deadline, too.

Don't limit yourself to things you know. Pick something you want to learn, and promise a talk on it. Then learn it, share what you've learned, and save people time.

You might be thinking: "But what can I share if I'm just a beginner?" This is actually the perfect time to share. By the time you're an expert, you've forgotten all the things people need to learn. Share as you go. You don't have to be brilliant, and you might need to try it a few times before you figure things out, but there's no better way to learn.

If you can convince people to try something out, or help them avoid your mistakes, or save people an hour or two of figuring things out on their own, then that's already worth it.

So, how does this line up with what you are going to do after lunch? Well, you're going to sign up to give three speeches.

Your first speech doesn't have to be brilliant. Look up your next goal from your workbook, pick something you've learned at work or at home, and commit to sharing it.

Your second speech doesn't have to be new. Pick something you've already shared, and make it better.

Your third speech doesn't have to be what you already know. Pick something you want to learn, and commit to sharing it. If you're doing one speech a month – that's plenty of time to prepare – you have at least two full months to try an experiment. It can be a technical overview, or something as practical as a speech about "How to wake up at 6 AM everyday for one month." Just do it.

Then make life easier for yourself! REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE. Make your own library of past speeches and ideas for future ones. Keep an eye out for interesting things to share. You'll find yourself with plenty of material in no time.

Who's ready to sign up? Who needs some more coaching? We'll figure out something that works. Take that card, use it as a reminder, and get in touch with me if there's any way I can help. There's so much you can talk about, but you've got to take that step.

Taking the Terror out of Talk

| speaking, toastmasters

Does the thought of speaking in public make you anxious? Want some
tips on how to deal with the butterflies in your stomach? Come to the
Toast I.T. Toastmasters Open House on Oct 10, 2006 for a fun,
informative session!

I'm giving one of the Toastmasters International educational modules
called “Taking the Terror out of Talk”. It will be part of the 229th
meeting of Toast I.T. Toastmasters, so you'll also get to see a little
bit of what Toastmasters is like.

This is free, so come on over!

Toast I.T. Toastmasters
Metro Hall
55 John Street, Toronto, Ontario (map)
Oct 10, 2006 (Tuesday)
6:00 PM – 8:00 PM

(And even if you're a polished public speaker, come anyway to show
support and share tips! ;) )

Photo credit: Cherie, Creative Commons Attribution License, from Flickr.

Hey! Toastmasters! =D

| toastmasters
Keynote Speakers Advanced Club - Club #: 8600, Dist #: 60, Est: 04/29/2003
Meeting Time: 10:00 am, 2nd & 4th Saturday
OPG / Mezzanine Level
700 University Avenue, Toronto, ON, Canada
Club Status: Membership eligibility criteria required - Contact club

Experienced professionals and beginning speakers alike can benefit
from Toastmasters' practical, face-to-face learning program. However,
Keynote Speakers is designed for advanced speakers who have already
given at least 10 Toastmasters speeches and received their CTM. You'll
learn and practice in a friendly, comfortable environment with people
who are on the same advanced level as you, and are there for the same
reason you are — to become better communicators.

Hey! I can join this now! Might be awesome to be part of two clubs…

Toastmasters: Persuasion project 1

| toastmasters

I did my first project from the advanced manual on persuasion. Learned
a lot from it, too – and not necessarily what the manual might've wanted me to learn… <laugh>

They remarked once again on my lack of energy. I was too low-key for
them. I decided not to use sugar-high-enthusiasm because I want to
learn how to talk to suits. I'm good at enthusiasm. I can bounce up
and down, wave pompoms, whatever. I need to learn how to speak to
people's serious sides, not just amuse them with my antics and my
enthusiasm. I need to learn how to provoke thought and establish
credibility. I'm not going to be this young forever, and I want to
learn how to speak properly by the time I need it!

Fortunately my evaluator also pointed out that I used a pleasant pace
– accessible! – not like my usual rush of words. Still, this is the
second time I've tried my serious voice on Toast I.T., and the
reaction's always been iffy. They like me breathless with enthusiasm,
bubbly, sparkling – but I'm more than that! I'm having a hard time
getting past this with Toast I.T., even if I wear a blazer and glasses
and everything. I want to be both. I want to blend seriousness and

Maybe I can save my “low-key” voice for IBM Toastmasters. Hmm…

The three- to five-minute roleplay situation for me seemed constrained
and unnatural. This is strange because I'm perfectly fine with
elevator pitches. I think I just need to get better at roleplaying.

I should probably have tried selling something concrete that I wasn't
too familiar with instead of selling something intangible. People seem
to think that selling ideas is easier than selling something concrete
because ideas don't cost money, they just cost time. I wish I could
make _them_ try to sell other people on ideas. Time is money. In fact,
time is a lot more expensive than the gadgets many people would
casually throw money away on.

One Toastmaster was particularly vocal about my being an absolute
failure at “real” sales and how I'd be fired right away if this was
the real thing. He insisted that sales was a hypercompetitive,
cutthroat world and that salespeople are paid tons because of the
competition. Personally, I believe that salespeople are paid a lot
because they clearly contribute to the bottom line in a quantifiable
manner. I also suspect that any numbers-driven sales that's just
concerned with how much the salesperson makes is totally not for me.
I'm more interested in relationship building. Fortunately, my mentor
called him to task and told him that there were other perfectly valid
ways of selling.

… And this guy also wondered why I didn't have any flashy slides. After
all, we all know that Powerpoint is _essential_ for sales. Mph. Well,
he was trying to be helpful, and there _are_ some audiences that need
a slide deck. For what I was doing, that was definitely out of the

The same person thought I didn't control the conversation enough, and
that I let my roleplay partner do too much of the talking. I thought I
did too much talking and not enough listening. I felt that I broke
into too many long passages, and I hate that. I feel that I'm most
effective when I listen to people, suggesting something after I've
understood their situation and validated them by paying attention to
them. I hate it when people fake listening, when they just care about
when they get to speak next. I hate it when people pretend they want a
conversation with you but they really just want to sell you stuff and
their message isn't individualized at all..

Wish I had my mom's books to whap the guy with! <laugh> Well, he
_was_ just trying to be helpful, and _his_ world is probably the
dog-eat-dog world he described. I'm 22 and I'm new to the subject, but
I get the feeling that there aree zbetter things out there.

Oh well.

I think I know what I'm going to “sell” for project 2 – houses. Or whatever.


| toastmasters

I made it just in time to catch the Table Topics session at
Toast I.T. Toastmasters. I nearly would've
won with my impromptu speech about Japan, but Mike Tsang's
jokes/insightful observations about India (“Chinese food in India is
the same as what they serve in Indian restaurants in China.”) won him
the best Table Topics Award. =) I was glad that he came out!

Michael Chan gave a speech on first impressions. I talked to him
afterwards to give him a more detailed evaluation and do the proper
mentor-ish thing of telling him some of the things I learned from that
speech, and we discovered that we had very similar book interests.
He's also read things like “Never Eat Alone” and “Love is the Killer
App”. In fact, he goes to the trouble of publishing book reviews on
Amazon. Must keep track of this guy. =)

I was proud of Chris Charabaruk, too, who stepped up and volunteered
to evaluate Michael on his second speech despite just having finished
his second speech as well. I talked to Chris afterwards to give him
some feedback on his evaluation, too. I'm glad they're both making the
most of the Toastmasters program!

We had our club elections today, too. I got acclaimed to the position
of VP Ed, and I'm looking forward to helping everyone learn as much as
they can… =)


| toastmasters

We had another executive meeting for Toast I.T. Toastmasters. I'm really glad to have this opportunity to serve the club as the secretary / treasurer, and I'm starting to get the hang of things. I'm planning to run for either VP education or VP membership in the upcoming elections. I know the position of vice president of education involves a lot of work – keeping track of people's progress, thinking of ways to help them improve their speaking skills – but that's exactly the kind of coaching I want to do. =) The VP of membership, on the other hand, is in charge of keeping in touch with members old and new, and reaching out to guests too. Either will really help me grow! =)

Helping people find their voice

| teaching, toastmasters

One of my friends scoffs at Toastmasters, but moments like this make
it definitely worthwhile.

Today one of the members brought his girlfriend to listen to his first
speech. The girl was painfully shy and clearly terrified of public
speaking, even during the Table Topics and guest comments section.

She approached me afterwards, though. And oh, the stories I could see
inside her… CN Tower Stair Climb T-shirt, colored bands around her
wrists: these are the marks of someone who cares deeply about some
things. I listened to her fears and shared my own experience learning
how to speak – at first starting out because I couldn't stop talking
about technology and I wanted to get into conferences for free, and
then realizing how much fun it was to help people learn. I told her
that the real trick to speaking in front of an audience – or at least
in front of Toastmasters – is to speak to them one person at a time,
treating them as your friends.

Most of all, I looked into her eyes and told her in many different
ways that she had stories worth telling.

When I felt her tentatively reaching out, I closed the loop and we
hugged. The hug was one of the best I've ever had, and her thank you
one of the sweetest.

This is what I live for: that deep connection, that chance to help
people find their voice.