I was recently telling a new hire of ours about all the various activities Sparkhound participates in or hosts for employees. Thursday dev lunches, Friday Lunch and Learns, Monday departmental cadence meetings, and the Toastmasters meeting every Monday night.
The reply came back, "...what's Toastmasters?"
Right then and there, I knew I not only had a lengthy email to write, but a new blog post to share.
Why does Sparkhound Baton Rouge happily host the Baton Rouge Downtown Toastmasters club every Monday night, and why do we encourage Sparkies to attend?
Brief Info: Toastmasters is a public, community-oriented educational group that fosters a constructive, supportive group environment for members to build experience and confidence with communication (including public speaking). It provides opportunties to gain experience with both communication and leadership through various roles in the club. Toastmasters is not just about public speaking in front of a crowd, but also active listening and speaking intelligently and with confidence, no matter the venue or audience.
History: A few years ago the Baton Rouge Downtown Toastmasters club, which has been meeting since the 1960s, moved its weekly meetings to the Sparkhound office. The meetings are open to the public, though one Sparkhound employee is always there. I try to go when I don't have any conflicts on Monday nights, knowing that I'll even be home in time for Monday Night Football.
Typical meeting: Meetings start at 6pm and last 50-80 minutes, starting with civic-minded introductions and the Pledge of Allegiance, moving into short spontaneous 1-2 minute speeches typically in the format of a short game, then 6-8 minute prepared speeches, 2-3 minute evaluations of those prepared speeches, and a wrap-up. There's lots of smiles, clapping, nervousness, achievement, praise, constructive criticism, new-word-learning, and more clapping.
Progress: Throughout the meetings and competitions, you'll meet folks from all walks of life, ages, and experience levels, all with the same goal - to gain experience and improve their communication and leadership skills.
I've been a not-too-frequent member and resisted the temptation to become a club officer (the Baton Rouge User Groups really compete for my time) for four years or so. Though I think I'm pretty experienced at public speaking, Toastmasters still presents a really positive challenge for me to continually improve my communication and evaluation skills.
Benefits: You can always attend for free, but if you join, you can start giving speeches to earn credit towards goals and certifications. I earned my "Competent Communicator" certification a few years back and competed in various levels of competition giving speeches, both prepared and spontaneous, and competed in giving evaluation.
One of our employees one of my good friends Stacy Vicknair rose to point of being a district officer and got a paid trip to the international Toastmasters conference in Malaysia. Your mileage may vary.
What's the Catch?: Again, it's free to attend, visitors are always welcome, and at most meetings there is at least one newcomer. If you decide to join, Sparkhound pays the small recurring membership fee for our employees as a way to encourage participation.
Who: It's a diverse community and a program oriented to help anyone of any experience level work on their communication and facilitation skills. Internally, we encourage everyone of any position or title to give it a shot, because we've had a number of employees go to Toastmasters meetings and we have seen their confident communication and consulting skills improve.
I've even dragged my teenager along for a few meetings, and though she says she disliked it (as most things), she did really surprisingly well when tasked to speak in front of the group. Most importantly, she learned that she had a voice and could use it to project to a room full of strangers, even if she swears she didn't like it (as most things). I was beaming with pride, to be honest, and hoped that she'd gained some margin of confidence for future public speaking opportunities. Sure enough, she's done well in her few attempts in high school, despite her shyness. So it might be a good thing to try with your son/daughter too, though be prepared for them to not be crazy about it (as most things).
More information: Baton Rouge Speaks, the website of the Downtown Toastmasters Club, batonrougespeaks.com
Toastmasters International, where you can find a club near you, toastmasters.org. The opportunity to attend Toastmasters will always be at Sparkhound’s Baton Rouge office in our downstairs conference room any Monday night, and so will a few Sparkhound employees. Hope to see you there.