Toastmasters and programming

Toastmaster’s is an international organisation that was created initially by Ralph Smedley, a YMCA director in Illinois USA. He set up these meetings as a way of training people to speak in public. The meetings continued on a regular basis and became an organisation called toastmaster’s see This organisation has since spread around the world in several languages. Most people join because they have a fear of Public speaking and need it to help them with presentations and big speeches e.g. Best Man Speeches. What is less known is the leadership aspect that runs alongside, which can have a positive influence in your career regardless of what your role is.

I started Toastmasters because I had just proposed to my then girlfriend in a very public setting. Although it went well and she said yes I struggled to actually project my whole speech and what came out of my mouth was some emotional jumble. My previous taste of public speaking was at my sister’s wedding. My dad did not want to do the father of the bride speech as he was not confident enough; so it fell to me. I stood up said my speech and projected it well. I was so scared during the lead up to it and I was dreading when I had to stand up. When I eventually got up and spoke I was shaking like a leaf.

I joined a club close to where I lived and turned up regularly to meetings. Due to the demand for speech slots I was unable to do what they term the “Ice Breaker Speech”, (1st speech) for a while, so had to partake in the other roles. What you learn initially by turning up as a guest, the sole focus is not to do what they call prepared speeches. Prepared speeches are a part of a meeting structure that contains a variety of different roles. These roles included the Toastmaster (The one who runs the meeting), Timekeeper, Grammarian, Evaluators, Sergeant of arms, Table topics master and of course the speakers (prepared & Table Topics).

Table topics are short 1-2 min off the cuff speech that a nominated person has to present despite hearing the topic seconds earlier. This is very useful when you need to speak on the spot, e.g. meeting. Evaluations come in the form of standing up in front of people with authority and presenting your evaluation in an effective way that benefits the speaker and other people in the meeting. In our evaluations it is expected to perform commendations of the speech and provide equally helpful recommendations; as to provide a platform to help the speaker improve. This provides experience that can be utilised for team leading. Other transferable leadership skills are listening, organisation, critical thinking and ability to evaluate effectively.

Whilst performing the roles for a while, you start noticing these skills you have been practicing start providing a positive influence into your everyday work. I wasn’t the most confident person when I started and noticed that I start gaining more confidence. This confidence was gained from performing your evaluations and as I was feeling more confident I kept going. After all if you can stand up in front of at least 20 people and talk with authority, you can talk to one or two people with the same authority. Another great role for building confidence is toastmaster. This is where you control the meeting and how it flows as you follow the pre-planned agenda; a great example of leading. Another key use of transferable skills comes in during Code reviews. This can come in the form of writing reviews and probably the hardest thing for me is taking the recommendations from the review. You learn that when you are being evaluated it is not personal; it is designed to improve your coding and to make you a better programmer.

I am so glad I joined. Not only did I manage to deliver a clear wedding speech, despite a friend invading the stage. I am feeling a much more rounded programmer. This has helped from being able to deliver a speech for Hackathons, to being able to talk with the business regarding queries with the requirements, to having the confidence to cover for the team lead and having the ability to answer questions in a meeting setting gained from experience of doing Table Topics.

Although it started as merely a way of training me to be able to speak at my wedding it has provided me with some great positive side effects that I believe can help anyone regardless of their role at work.

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