Sometimes, the best choices are right in front of us. When it comes to developing communication or leadership skills, active participation in a Toastmasters club is probably the best value around. No need to send potential managers to multi-day workshops that cost as much as a good used car. No point in sending them to a community college for a semester-long course where they’ll do three or four speeches for credit and feedback. Instead, consider doing what nearly a hundred firms in the Chicago area have done: form a Toastmasters club on site, exclusively for employees. Kraft Foods, AT&T, Sears, Blue Cross, and many others all have Toastmasters clubs for employees that meet two to four times monthly.
First, let’s talk about effectiveness. The Toastmasters educational program consists of two parallel tracks: communications and leadership. The learning model is simple: learn by doing, with feedback from peers. There are no instructors, only peers. Each member prepares and delivers short (usually 5 to 7 minutes long) speeches at his or her own pace, with guidelines provided in a well-written manual that contains ten speech projects. Each project introduces a new element of speaking (organization, gestures, use of visual aids, using the voice for emotional effect). Similarly, the leadership manual contains a series of projects focused on ten important leadership skills (listening, time management, mentoring). Every speaker gets both written and verbal feedback from a peer shortly after giving the speech. Learning just doesn’t get any simpler or more effective than this. Give an adult control over learning, clear and direct guidance, and immediate feedback and soon you’ll have someone with greater skills.
Hundreds of skilled speakers and leaders have passed through the Toastmasters program, including several politicians and journalists. The ranks of professional speaking include many, many more. All f0r the simple reason that the program works.
Now, let’s talk value. Those workshops run by name-brand institutes can cost as much as several thousand dollars, and yet the students might get to speak only two or three times. Even courses at your local community college will cost a few hundred dollars with equally limited chances for practice and feedback. Toastmasters International charges $20 for the initial set of manuals and a whopping $72 in annual dues. Individual clubs usually tack on another $10 or $15 to cover some incidental expenses like registration for local Toastmasters conferences, but that’s it.
Training money is always tight. Why not spend it as effectively as you can? For my money, Toastmasters membership is the best value in professional development available today.