An international organization boasting over 3 million members, whose purpose is to help its users become better public speakers. Membership in Toastmasters is respected by businesses and employers all over the world, and many companies will offer incentives to employees for joining and completing various levels of achievement within the program. There is a very well-defined experience system, which allows anyone knowing a member's status in the hierarchy to determine exactly what kinds of speeches he or she has given and how many, as well as what other business and leadership skills they have demonstrated competency in. Most of the local clubs meet weekly, with state, national and international-level conferences, competitions, etc. less frequently.

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Toastmasters International is a global organisation that aims to improve the public speaking ability of all of its members, which, by all accounts, reaps many benefits down the road, in one's life. It has been show to improve a speaker's self-esteem, not to mention job prospects. Indeed, while there are many Toastmaster chapters around the world, a very sizable minority are sponsored by companies. There are some famous Toastmasters out there, as well -- Tim Allen, James Brady, and Billie Jean King, to name a few.

I first found out about Toastmasters through my ex-housemate, who, upon moving to the DC area, quickly became gung-ho about this organisation, signing up with not one, or even two, but three Toastmaster clubs in the area. One of her main objectives was to improve her English, as she is not a native speaker. This is just one of many things achieved, as she has found great succcess within the ranks of the organisation. Toastmasters International has helped her immensely -- not to mention millions of others around the world.

The Process
When one first becomes a Toastmaster, s/he has an initial goal of becoming a (CTM), or Competent Toastmaster. This is accomplished by achieving success with the ten speeches discussed in one's workbook, each of which have a different focus. For example, one topic might focus on speech organisation, another might focus on humour, another on persuasive speech, and yet another on vocabulary. Each of these speeches are "graded" by the speechwriters' peers, who give praise and constructive criticism.

Once a Toastmaster becomes a CTM, s/he can follow one of two tracks, the Communication Track or the Leadership Track. Again, giving more speeches, the former track runs through the ranks of Advanced Toastmaster (ATM) on the bronze, silver and gold levels -- or, on the latter, accomplishes criteria necessary to achieve Competent Leader (CL), and then Advanced Leader (AL).

Following the accomplishment of one of these tracks, the paths merge once again, whereupon the Toastmaster continues his or her path to success, culminating in the highly-regarded Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) title.

The Format
Toastmaster meetings are generally held once or twice a month and generally last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or more. Generally, they start with table topics, whereupon a speaker opens up the meeting with a brief talk to try and warm up the crowd. To do so, s/he will segue into open questions, anywhere from three to five times during the speech, asking club members at random to give an impromptu, thirty-second response, completely off-the-cuff. This is done to teach members the skill of being able to think on one's feet.

Following the table topics, the meeting continues, usually having three to four speeches given by various club members. The general focus of a member's speech is dependent on his or her progress, thus far, in the workbook.

At Toastmaster meetings, generally everyone has a role, regardless of if they are giving speeches or not. There are several tasks assigned, before a meeting starts, such as timer, speech evaluator, "'uh' counter" (who counts "uncomfortable silences") , and the grammarian. At the end of the speeches, each of these members gives their particular report.

Altogether, it is a very structured organisation, but it's not all stuffy meetings. There are worldwide speech competitions as well. While I suppose this may sound as about exciting as watching grass grow to some, these competitions are fairly heated -- and at least you know you'll be hearing some good speakers.

I was a Toastmaster for about a year. I only gave one speech (my "icebreaker"), and did not renew my membership because after giving it a year, it simply did not seem like my cup of tea. However, it has been a great help to many, many others. I'm not about to discourage anyone from becoming a Toastmaster -- I've seen what it has done for people. If it sounds like something up your alley, I'd recommend giving it a shot.

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