Diverging Pathways: Does Toastmasters still care about community clubs?

EVERY TUESDAY NIGHT AT ABOUT 6 P.M., they start trickling into an IHOP located in one of Albuquerque’s less remarkable neighborhoods. Young and old, working and retired, crazy and sane, from all walks of life – they assemble and begin ordering waffles, burgers, salads, and desserts. They chat and eat and relax for a while, until that gavel bangs down, signaling the start of another meeting of the 122nd Toastmasters club ever created. They have met every single Tuesday, overcoming bad weather, natural disasters, and sudden restaurant closures, since the Roosevelt administration.

In our increasingly isolated society of like-minded echo chambers, what unites this diverse group of individuals? Why do the rural firearms enthusiast, the shameless urbanite who bicycles everywhere, the student, the psychologist, the legal-marijuana evangelist, and the retired dentist all willingly consent to spend a couple hours together every week? Why do they even appear to like each other?

The official story is that we all want to get better at public speaking, still the most recognizable brand offering of Toastmasters, despite recent efforts to place overwhelming emphasis on Leadership-As-a-Skill. And you can certainly spot those newbie communicators without too much trouble, busily working their way through the CC manual and nervously pacing outside the room during the break before their speeches. They bring a great energy to the club, and hopefully always will.

But this hardly explains the core group of about ten club veterans. One can “get better at public speaking” for one year, maybe two, but those of us who’ve been around for five or ten years have surely plateaued on that front, save the occasional tricks that old dogs sometimes pick up. If anyone in this cadre is expecting great educational revelations in year seven, they surely are, as a recently passed 45-year club veteran liked to joke, a slow learner.

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Club 122 is a special place, but there’s an increasingly urgent question lurking in the background: Does anyone from Toastmasters International care?

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One slightly better answer is that veteran or newbie, the proud members of Albuquerque Toastmasters Club 122 are all, when you get right down to it, hopeless nerds. The group is well read, well traveled, curious, and game to walk up to complete strangers, shake hands, and ask a few questions. The thought required to prepare a speech or to serve as VP of membership or to just take in the sheer diversity of the crowd is the sort of mental challenge normally presented only by a foreign language, and true nerds revel in it.

But probably the best answer is that people keep coming because we’re social creatures and have always stuck close to our groups. It’s good for us. Studies have demonstrated that membership in a group can raise happiness levels just as much as a big fat raise in pay. Not so long ago, it was a church or bowling league or Moose lodge that brought this to our lives, but today, for a small slice of Albuquerque residents, it is the occasionally thin pretense of getting better at public speaking.

It’s possible that this is perhaps not exactly aligned with the mission of Toastmasters, but it’s also possible that I couldn’t care less, because nobody at the club has benefited from this state of affairs more than me. Not long after joining, I found myself spending two educational years working for a fellow club member, and we still frequently reminisce about the experience over margaritas on his back patio. That retired dentist, meanwhile, wasn’t always retired, and has installed more metal in my mouth than I care to admit. I started an informal homeowner mutual aid society with another club member, so occasionally we get together and work on each other’s houses. Another friend – that rural firearms enthusiast – has taken me out shooting in the vast New Mexico wilderness. Sometimes he also comes over to drink Coronas, talk about sailing, and eat Boca burgers. (Because why wouldn’t a rural firearms enthusiast also appreciate proudly vegan sandwiches?) Then there’s my wife. We met at Club 122, nine years and four mediocre restaurants ago.

Club 122 is a special place, but there’s an increasingly urgent question lurking in the background: Does anyone from Toastmasters International care?

To be sure, there’s been a minor tension between our old-fashioned club and the larger, up-and-coming organization for a long time now. Every six months or so, an area governor dutifully shows up, take notes, and pesters us about members who seemed to be doing too many non-manual speeches, and about the fact that pretty much all of us have completely ignored the CL manual. There is the obligatory twice-annual attendance at the pep rally known as TLI, which we grumble about or ridicule or just attempt to sleep through with our eyes open. And there are the area and district contests, which are usually dominated by a brand of speech that is part motivational and part secular take on the prosperity gospel. (That’s all fine as far as it goes, but it would be out of place back on the home turf of IHOP.)  

Like any other good relationship, it has its minor annoyances, but it is also generally navigable. On the whole, we keep our grumbling and too-cool-for-school attitude to ourselves, and they let our successful community club be a successful community club.

In retrospect, the change in slogan to “Where Leaders Are Made” should have been a tip-off. Leaders? Maybe in some small way, and being a club officer is certainly educational on that front, but ABQ-122 is not a power-tie-with-a-slickly-animated-PowerPoint-ladder-climbing-take-over-the-world sort of club. There’s nothing wrong with that style, of course, and I’ve enjoyed visiting other clubs that fit the bill, but the retired dentist mentioned above has no need for such things. The two environmental scientists, meanwhile, may commit small, inconspicuous acts of leadership now and then, both at work and in the greater community, but neither will be running for office anytime soon. What of the reserved nurse, or the even-more-reserved computer scientist? They likely have no professional use for standard-issue leadership skills, but are nonetheless assets to both our club and America at large.

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A broad-based symposium for students of life has turned into a support group for hard-charging future managers and executives.

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Others in the club who do actually lead others for a living seem to prefer sources of inspiration other than those that come from those beautifully produced TMI manuals with the friendly models on the cover.

Corny slogans, luckily, are easy to ignore. Mandatory new educational curricula, not so much.

Now comes Pathways, the shotgun marriage of the wildly popular CC manual and the wildly unpopular CL manual. [DOWNLOAD AN OVERVIEW HERE.] It is the culmination of a multi-year effort to fix what few at the IHOP thought was actually broken. And it is the triumph of the leadership-as-king movement within Toastmasters.

Gone is the wide open plain of the CC manual, where the sky was the limit for topic selection. Instead, there are more focused paths, many of which require self analysis projects about leadership and communications style. There is a special focus on mentorship – every path includes a speech about a past experience as a protege. There is also more in the way of motivation, interpersonal communication strategies, and reflective wrap ups at the end of the various paths. A broad-based symposium for students of life has turned into a support group for hard-charging future managers and executives.

Truly, there is a lot to like about Pathways. The requirement in project two that speakers actually incorporate the feedback they got on the previous speech will nudge people in a more disciplined direction, without sacrificing creativity in topic selection. And the “managing a difficult audience” elective is sheer genius – not every communication situation in the real world, after all, involves a close group of supportive friends.

In fact, while it has yet to be rolled out at my club, the detailed outlines I’ve seen of Pathways look really good. If I were a manager or owner at a medium-to-large-sized company, I would definitely push my underlings to check it out. It seems tailor-made to help the up-and-coming leaders of tomorrow get outside their normal, routine headspace, think critically about where they’re going, and develop the sorts of skills they’ll doubtlessly need to get there.

But a question: As Toastmasters positions itself to be the educational supplement of choice for the global corporate elite, what exactly would it like to do with Club 122 in Albuquerque? The retired violin teacher in her 80s likes to give speeches (usually about books she’s been reading), but is not likely to be a good candidate for the Effective Coaching or Innovative Planning path. The retired accountant, who likes to give speeches about politics (despite how much we try to discourage him), is not going to excitedly pick up Leadership Development or Motivational strategies. (Neither, incidentally, will be particularly good at doing all of this online.)

And it’s not just our senior members. Does the former Oracle manager who now runs his own highly successful company out of his house, employing about 25 people while he’s at it, really going to try his hand at Strategic Relationships? Having learned at the knee of the tech industry’s finest, he’s probably got that one covered, thanks. What use would the nurse have for Persuasive Influence, which includes a project that requires the formation of a guidance committee that meets at least five times and implements some undefined project. (Who, for that matter, is she going to convince to sit on such a committee?)

Those two will probably stay in the club, come what may, but how will the next nurse or small business owner react to an organization that desperately wants to teach them things they either already know or don’t care to learn?

The CC manual, a blank slate onto which we could all find something to write, seems to have been relegated to one path, Presentation Mastery, and larded up with electives like the creation of a podcast or blog, or project management. As I read over that path, particularly the 18-22-minute keynote speech requirement, I wondered if I would have ever joined Toastmasters had this curriculum been in place. My guess is not.

Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Pathways. It seems like the sort of well-tailored product that TMI can sell to eager companies looking to make the most out of their employees.

But how will an educational curriculum now narrowly defined for the benefit of ladder-climbers in the business world affect us in Albuquerque? Hard to say for sure, but I think it’s a good bet we’ll keep away or drive away a lot of fun, interesting, normal people that would have done just fine with the soon-to-be-exiled CC manual.

Who knows why we keep showing up to that IHOP, but every Tuesday, there we are. Some of us really are trying to take over the world, and will doubtless love the communications and leadership combo meal that is Pathways. Some are only trying to get better at public speaking, and they may go either way. Others need to get out of the house, find a place to belong, or maybe just enjoy the zany antics and life-long friendships that are bound to emerge from such a diverse and interesting group of eccentric nerds.

We may not be laser-focused on motivation and leadership skills, but we’re still Toastmasters. We still love the game, we still love speaking, and we still love our club. The only questions is this: Does Toastmasters International still care?

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Peter Rice speaks for himself, and definitely not for Toastmasters International or Albuquerque Toastmasters Club 122. Feel free to contact Peter anytime via this form.

For an overview of Pathways, click here.

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5 thoughts on “Diverging Pathways: Does Toastmasters still care about community clubs?

  1. Thanks for bringing me up to speed on the new manual
    In your eloquent, well reasoned and insightful way.
    I have missed the characters in club 122, and the comraderie I felt in that eclectic group.

  2. Greg Damy says:

    Very interesting article my friend and you have picked up on a point of interest that will affect all of us.

    Doing the pathways route i think is most definitely progress. It will help focus the mind of individuals and contribute to the evolution of the club concerned. I know a few who would merely like to pick up the ‘microphone’ and let their dulcet tones echo through the walls of the meeting hall without contributing anything to the running of the club. ‘cherry picking’ for want of a better phrase. Like it or not a successful club requires leaders and by taking on the sometimes tedious roles of timekeeper or body language evaluator we are focussing the mind for our speakers to improve on their past performances.
    Granted, a dentist who is retired may not require an MBA to set the world on fire nor a set of corporate style leadership skills which could be obtained from pathways, but there is one thing for sure – we are all getting on in years and if we do not continuously evolve by learning new skills we may become dinosaurs and are more likely to suffer from mental health issues e.g dementia if we are not universally tooled up. People who know a foreign language are less likely to suffer from dementia initially even though their brains’ may be already be in decline.
    Public speaking let’s face it is something that leaders do. A comedian or a manager are both trying to get a message across or influence an audience and in some less tolerant political regimes, comedians have been ostracized for their irony by the regime in power.
    From the organisational perspective, TMI has had to move with the times and continue to seem to be relevant for newcomers especially as there are an increasing number of public speaking organisations coming on stream, TMI would most likely fade out of existence.
    The challenge for clubs now will be with mentors. Retired teachers, dentists or wood makers who have been around for years and wish to have fun mentoring people through the various paths will have a positive effect on the club. Mentoring is great and the vast resources of said retired members will undoubtedly have a mutual benefit.
    IHOP will always be there just like tapas on the terrace or noodles overlooking Hong Kong harbour and I agree that the social element of this club is vital for the club’s success.

    • All very good points, so why not offer both? Adapt to the changing times by offering Pathways, but for those people or clubs who prefer the straight public speaking route, let them keep to the old ways. Maybe even slap a “community club” designation on them so as not to affect the overarching TM branding.

      Granted, this would be hard to do in a place like Sevilla, with only one club. But Albuquerque has 30, and there’s no reason they couldn’t all have radically different styles.

      I’m all for playing the veteran/mentor role, which is good clean fun. But how many speeches about dynamic planning or negotiation am I willing to sit through? Guess we’re about to find out…

  3. Megan says:

    Thank you Peter! They will be presenting Pathways to my club at the end of the month. I am very thankful to have this overview ahead of time. I am sad to say that after reviewing some of the projects (although briefly), I am not sure that Toastmasters will have the same draw for me. I have always found the Leadership manual a bit tedious but it can help engage those who are anxious about engaging in roles. This seems a bit more like a college course than a place where we get to meet people and help grow our skills. I have an MBA, a small business and public speak everyday but I look to expand my skills with topics and stories that interest me and I can share.

    I have volunteered to be the VP of Education to assist the club in the transition- I have been warned that is going to be much more difficult than the role was previously.

    As a club that has our share of non- professionals and young adults with special needs – this program will be overwhelming.

    We have only one club in our in our area – I wish we had the choice to follow Pathways or the CC.

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