Addressing each other as sir and madam; counting filler words such as “ah,” “um” and “er;” revealing which district they represent; and clapping—so much clapping. These are just a few behaviors a first-time visitor may find curious. The very name Toastmasters is perplexing—and “district?” What is this, “The Hunger Games?”
Baffling behavior aside, Toastmasters International boasts more than 352,000 members in more than 16,400 clubs in 141 countries. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, Toastmasters has helped people become more confident speakers, communicators and leaders since its beginning in 1924.
Connect recently caught up with Brenda O’Brien, Pathways chief ambassador for District 33, to discuss Pathways, Toastmasters’ new self-paced, technology-driven learning experience that’s proving to be a game changer.
Finding Your Path
Toastmasters’ new program is designed to help members build the competencies they need to communicate and lead in today’s fast-paced, high-stakes work environment. There are currently 10 paths, each with five levels of increasing complexity. Each completed project unlocks the next. To get started, members take an online assessment to find the path that’s right for them. In Base Camp, they can access all of the materials for their learning experience: feedback forms, class transcripts, tutorials, videos, progress trackers and awards.
While the traditional program revolved around presenting a series of speeches, Pathways offers dynamic projects like starting a blog, creating a podcast and conducting an online meeting.
O’Brien has been a member of Toastmasters for 30 years and describes Pathways as “the largest change the organization has seen since its inception in 1924.”
We’ve all heard the phrase “Evolve or Die.” O’Brien was living it. “In 2010, Toastmasters realized its current program wasn’t keeping up with society’s technological advances,” she says. “Also, the skills taught no longer matched what employees needed.”
Toastmasters surveyed current members and employers about their needs and considered their competitors’ programs like Dale Carnegie, John Maxwell and universities to discover what skills and deliverables they offered. O’Brien admits the changes were more in-depth than Toastmasters planned; however, the resulting curriculum is worth it.
The traditional program was a paper-based, one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter curriculum that offered 68 skills to master. It took most members months to earn their first award. Pathways, on the other hand, is a technology-based, customizable, flexible curriculum with 300 real-world, transferable skills to master with faster and more frequent feedback and awards.
“Feedback is everything in Toastmasters,” says O’Brien. “Members give and receive constructive feedback through evaluations that show us how others perceive us.”
How successful has Pathways been? O’Brien beams, “It’s attracting new and younger people, which were part of our goals,” she says.
O’Brien says millennials are looking for intuitive technology, customization, go-at-your-own-pace flexibility and immediate gratification—all of which Pathways affords. “They’re used to online training,” O’Brien notes. “Millennials are seeking out Toastmasters for personal development and career advancement.”
Pathways utilizes the same technology used in universities, job training and online workshops, including video training. Starting young is key to reaching goals, says O’Brien. “Effective communication and dynamic leadership don’t just happen; these skills require learning and practice.”
That’s not to say only young people walk away from Pathways with opportunities to grow. “Toastmasters makes us great at thinking on our feet,” she says. “We all have desires and needs to communicate. The skills I’ve learned in Toastmasters over the last 30 years work as well with friends and family as they do in the workplace.”