Toastmasters Speech Project FAIL

What do you do when your Toastmasters speech project fails? Toastmasters 101 podcast

If you’ve been in Toastmasters very long, you’ve probably seen the Toastmasters speech project that went wrong.  So wrong.  Cringe-worthy bad.  The speech that makes you look at the cobweb in the corner of the room and try to avoid eye-contact with the speaker.

Yeah, that speech.

Here’s a small consolation:  we’ve all done it.  So what do we do about it?

On today’s episode of Toastmasters 101, we go back to the beginning and talk about the speech that failed from the points of view of the speaker, the evaluator, and the vice president of education.


Are you looking for a way to share your message with the world – but need help to develop those public speaking skills?  Then Toastmasters is what you’re looking for.  Our proven program will help you overcome fear of public speaking and teach you how to write a compelling and interesting speech.  This is Toastmasters 101.  I’m your host, Kim Krajci.

When your Toastmasters Speech Project goes wrong, what happened?

There are several reasons a speech project goes wrong.  The most obvious one is that the speaker didn’t do the work.  They sped through the Pathways training, didn’t bother to read the instructions, or apply the project purpose.  As they  – ok, as I – feel so comfortable that I don’t need to prep, then I don’t bother.

We have a thing in Toastmasters called the Hip Pocket Speech.  It’s a speech that you’ve prepared and have ready to give when an empty speech slot opens up at the last minute in a meeting.  This is different from the impromptu speech, which is when I step up without a single preparation moment, or at most, I ask to be 2nd or 3rd speaker on the agenda and try to throw something together.  Do I look at the speech evaluation form?  Probably not – if I even have one.  Half the time that I’m doing this, I’ve either got a generic evaluation form or none at all.

The usual result of me doing this is – fail.  Sometimes I pull it off, but usually, not.

Toastmasters Speech Project Using Visual Aids

My most recent failure wasn’t an unprepared speech.

Last week, I had a speech project Using Visual Aids.  My topic was how to share evaluations through Pathways Base Camp.  Yes, this is the same material I covered in a recent podcast, Toastmasters 101 dot net slash 61. In this club, I have one gentleman who is roughly the same age as I am, and has just as goofy a sense of humor as I do – and constantly calls me by the wrong name.  On purpose.  In real life, this toastmaster is a pilot who recently completed his certifications for helicopters and night flying helicopters.  So delivering an evaluation… delivering anything via airplanes… in my head, it made sense to name this speech “So Easy that Even Mike Can Do It.”

And right from the get-go, my visual aids DIED.  I mean, the program just did not work.  I had to reload the page to get it back up.

From that moment on, I was… flummoxed.  Confused.  Bewildered?  That’s too mild.  I was frustrated and it showed.  The speech was a disaster with a capital D.  Too fast, too much information, bad eye contact, you name it, I did it wrong.

My Self-Evaluation

According to the project, I’m very unhappy with my performance.  I failed to achieve any of the purposes of the Toastmasters speech project.  I didn’t demonstrate anything that I’d learned from the Pathways videos/instructions.

I may think of this as one of the most prepared projects I’ve done this year.  But I failed.

What should I do?

First of all, I think that we learn most from our failures.  So I don’t beat myself up over this project. This experience taught me:

  • I can’t trust some software programs to stay functional while I’m on another platform.
  • Start my visual aids software before my introduction by the Toastmaster of the Day.
  • Check with someone before you use their name.

Was that the purpose of the project?  No.  But that’s what I learned – so the speech project is not a waste.  Next time – and there will be a next time because I think this is a project that’s worth my time and effort to repeat – I will work on one specific skill – probably how to manage myself when I’m distracted.

So, if you were my evaluator, what would you have said?

Fortunately, my evaluator and I have a standing agreement:  no-holds-barred evaluations.  It was brutal… and it was well-deserved.  Everything she said was absolutely true.  While she was kind and she explained her rationale for her comments to our guests and to our new members, I felt every one of them in my soul.

Were my fellow Toastmasters offended by my implication that this process is so easy that even Mike can do it?  I thought Mike may have been – because we weren’t in the same room, I couldn’t tell.  Neither could anyone else.  My evaluator had to explain to the audience about our kidding relationship – because they were new and didn’t know that Mike and I regularly poke at each other.

What should you do when you are faced with evaluating the crashed and burned Toastmasters speech project?

First, be kind.

My evaluator – who is remaining nameless here – was kind.  She is kind.  But she knows that improvement comes when we hear points of growth, not when an evaluator simply recites back that speech.  She used examples from my speech as points of growth with suggestions for improvements.

Most speech evaluators are trained to say, “In my opinion” or “I think you might.”   This is probably the best tack to take.  I like the “what I saw, what I heard” evaluation in this case.  I might hold off on the “what I felt” because for the Toastmaster who knows she just did a horrible job, hearing how you felt about it may be more than they want to know.  I don’t think I want to hear that you were horrified by my performance.

Second, try to understand what your speaker’s goals are – not just the project goals.

I’m struggling with the online meeting format and how to engage my audience.  My evaluator made me think about it in this presentation.  She liked my content, disliked the speed, and rushed feeling that she had from a speech that would better be a 10-12 minute presentation than 5 to 7 minutes.

This is what she did best as an evaluator.  Her perspective as an audience member trying to capture what I was presenting – clearly that was her best value to me.  Since my evaluator is a DTM, I could say that she’s highly experienced and knows all the best ways to do things – but that’s not what she did.

Instead, my evaluator knows my goal is to improve as an online presenter.  Her points of growth focused on those things more than the use of the visual aids, which was, after all, the purpose of this presentation.

Third, encourage the speaker to not give up.

A new member giving their first, second, or even fifth Toastmasters speech project gets a different type of evaluation when they don’t do a good job.  The points of growth need to be simple and singular.  This is tricky – a 2 to 3-minute evaluation with only one point of growth sounds like it could be harsh.  Instead, I think what the new member probably needs is encouragement and several suggestions all about the same idea.

A new speaker who is just stepping into presenting probably needs help with presentation skills – so perhaps focus on one of them.  Vocal variety is often an early problem, so you could talk about the 6 dimensions of vocal variety – fast and slow, loud and soft, high and low.  Covering those could take more than 3 minutes!  Giving a demonstration and asking if they could try that next time.

A common early fail is the lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng pause.  The abnormally long break where the speaker has lost their train of thought, or frozen in fear, or technical difficulties have interrupted the speech.

It’s not commonly done, but I think in this case, the evaluator might want to step away from the “official evaluation format” and try something radical.  Ask the speaker what they think happened in the long pause.  Let them answer – and be prepared to respond to that.

Stage Fright

It’s not likely that they’re going to admit fear overcame them – they’re more likely to say something else distracted them or they lost their place.  You might want to address the fear issue in a non-direct and unthreatening way by prefacing it with a “for our other members, a long pause may indicate that their stage fright overcame them – not that this happened here, but let’s address it anyway for everyone’s benefit.”

If they say, “I lost my place” you can discuss the use of notes or the issue of memorization.

This type of evaluation makes you think on your feet.  If they give you an answer you don’t have a point of growth for – commiserate with them.  Empathize.  We’ve all been there and it’s rough, but we can learn from these situations that – we don’t die.  The world doesn’t end.  Experiencing this here in Toastmasters where we don’t judge you and where  the future of your career is not on the line – this is the opportunity for the speaker to learn how to manage this situation in the future.

Spend energy on encouragement without sounding condescending or goofy.  Express confidence that the next time they get up on the stage, they will do better because of this experience.

Now the Toastmasters Speech Project Controversy starts.

Pass or Fail Toastmasters Speech Project

What does the Vice President of Education do when a speech project goes wrong?

In Toastmasters, we don’t grade speech presentations.

We evaluate – which is essentially one person giving their opinion.  It is not an indication of any standard that must be achieved.

Now, as an experienced Toastmaster, I can certainly look at a presentation and say, “You need to do that again.”  I’ve said it in evaluations.

But that’s not an edict.  I don’t have the authority to require anyone to repeat a project.  Neither does your club’s vice president of education.

A very strong part of the Toastmasters experience is the opportunity to try.   We say we provide a supportive environment for our members to grow.

From Toastmasters International:

Toastmasters International Mission

We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.

Club Mission

We provide a supportive and positive learning experience in which members are empowered to develop communication and leadership skills, resulting in greater self-confidence and personal growth.

Doing something new often means failure until we master the skill.  Our program is designed to help the member – not to grade them.  You want grades?  Go to college.

That’s not what Toastmasters is about – which is why I get a little annoyed when I see the question time and again, “Can the VPE tell a member to repeat a Toastmasters speech project?  Can the VPE refuse to give credit for a bombed project?”

The answers are no.  A VPE can advise a member to repeat a speech project to improve their skills but cannot refuse to give credit in Pathways.  A completed project, regardless of success, is a completed project and must be respected when the member submits it for a level completion.

I can hear the gnashing of teeth.  I know this frustrates some members that others, perhaps with less drive or intention, wander through the projects with the least amount of work.  It doesn’t seem fair that some members get the level awards after producing a series of poor presentations.

Yep.  But let’s agree on this.

They’re going to get what they put the effort into and they’re going to get experience that will teach them some life lessons.

Even when a speaker starts a speech with “I didn’t have much time to prepare” – please don’t do that! – and proceeds to bomb – that experience is going to teach them something.  The member who is in the club because the boss told them to join Toastmasters and is barely putting in the effort – they’re learning something but mostly they’re just doing whatever it takes to get them to their goals.  It may hurt to think that we’re nothing more than a tool in their life… but we need to accept that not everyone is here for the same reason.

So the VPE will have to give the speaker credit for the completed Toastmasters speech project – even if it’s a disaster.

If you’re a new Toastmaster – please don’t worry about the bombed speech.  I’m here to tell you – you’re going to do it at some point.  But don’t worry about it.  We’ll still be here to encourage you and help you learn from the experience.

And probably we’ll clean the cobwebs from the corners after the meeting is over.

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How about you share this podcast with your fellow Toastmasters this week?  Just tell one person to give Toastmasters 101 podcast a listen.  That’s all I ask.

Happy New Years – okay, Toastmasters New Year!  Our new year starts on July 1 every year.  Next week, we’ll talk about setting your Toastmasters goals for the coming 12 months by taking a look at your whole Pathway, not just the next Toastmasters speech project.