Do we have a problem?

In his provocative and well-argued article entitled: Toastmasters has a Problem it Desperately Needs to Address, Al Pittampalli claims that the organization promotes a view of public speaking that favors style and delivery over content and substance. As a fellow Toastmaster who is sympathetic to the claims he makes, I’ve written a response to Mr. Pittampalli’s article. 

I agree with the larger point of the article that Toastmasters tends to promote a view of effective public speaking that gives disproportionate weight to speech delivery over content. I also agree with Mr. Pittampalli’s narrower claim that judges of the International Speech Contest tend to reward speakers whose performance follows that pattern. In essence, the winners see their goal as moving their audience emotionally rather than persuading them to act in some way “to change the world” (even if just a bit). 

The differences between competitive speaking and non-competitive club speeches in Toastmasters is something like the difference between competitive musical competitions and playing a musical instrument for its intrinsic rewards. Different rules apply. In a speech competition, like a musical competition, there is little room for improvisation.

The unspoken rules of competitions promote conservative rather than original interpretations and classical topics and themes as opposed to contemporary ones. As a result, the musical innovation of the original is lost from view. A more familiar and standardized sound and style are both expected of contestants and rewarded by jurors.

Where this music analogy breaks down is with regard to Mr. Pittampalli’s complaint about Toastmasters promoting style at the expense of substance. In a formal music competition, style and showmanship would hardly tip the scales in favor of one musician over another if the flashier performance demonstrated an inferior mastery of the music. But again, this supposes that we know what constitutes good performance and can distinguish this from mere bluster.

Mr. Pittampalli’s point is that Toastmaster’s emphasis on performance has pushed public speaking into the realm of acting and theatrical performance and away from its traditional moorings in classical rhetoric and oratory. There are many reasons why the great speeches he cites, like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, are masterpieces. They all have a compelling message, namely, what they want the audience to do as a result of their speech. They all employ rhetorical devices and conceits that were part of a longer tradition of oratory dating from the Greeks and Cicero to the present-day. What Mr. Pittampalli calls the content, I would call the message (following a suggestion of Chris Witt, speech coach and author of the minor classic, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint) and would describe the “content” as the words used to communicate that message. 

But in addition, the speakers themselves were in an important sense the medium through which the message was communicated. Chris Witt, whom I referred to in the previous paragraph, likes to say “you are the message, but it is not about you.” A credible message requires a credible speaker, just like a powerful message requires a powerful speaker.

Another factor in effective speech is the audience, which Mr. Pittampalli fails to mention entirely. Understanding your audience and crafting a message that speaks to their interests and concerns is one of the keys to an effective speech. Granting this, it might be that the audience expects a certain type of competition speech, just like we expect a certain type of plot from Pixar or Disney. In response, the defender of Mr. Pittampalli’s thesis might argue that even the stories of these curators of classical and modern myths and fairytales favor style over substance and choose topics and themes that are either inspirational or insipid, depending on your willingness to suspend belief. Arguably, however, the appeal of these stories is the fact that they touch on universal themes– certainly, they are almost universally popular. (I owe this line of argument to Matthias Catón). Indeed, Mr. Pittampalli’s article might well have been titled, “The Disneyfication of Toastmasters”, given the fact that Toastmasters originated in such close proximity to Tinseltown.

It could also be that our brains conspire to disproportionally value speeches that touch our emotions rather than over those that appeal to reason. Clearly, the winners of these contests, like the writers at Pixar and Disney, believe they have found the “formulae” for the best “Mickey Mouse speech” (Mr. Pittampalli’s words). And just as obviously, they are right. 

I think the best counter-argument to the claim that the International Speech contest favors style over substance is the fact that a full 50% of points on the judging ballot for evaluating the speech are about content (speech development, effectiveness, and value), while 30% is devoted to delivery (physical, vocal, mannerisms) and the remaining 20% focuses on language. One might quibble with these categories or their relative importance, but the criteria themselves hardly give aid and comfort to the defenders of style over substance, quite to the contrary. Indeed, given the criteria, one should be surprised that the winning speeches are as devoid of substance and gravitas as the author claims.

One bit of anecdotal evidence I can submit in favor of Mr. Pittampalli’s thesis is a recent Toastmasters meeting where I was asked to be a speech evaluator. After the speech, I proceeded with my evaluation. I said that every speech should have one main idea and described what I thought was the main idea of the speech. I then described how the speaker provided backing for her main idea by introducing supporting claims, how the supporting claims were used to build her “case”, how she introduced exemptions to the general claim she was making and how she providing backing to her claims by employing various types of evidence, arguments, and illustrations. I concluded my evaluation by considering whether her speech was effective i.e. whether it accomplished its purpose.

At the end of the meeting, the general evaluator— in Toastmaster’s jargon the person who evaluates the meeting as a whole– admitted that he had never attended a Toastmaster meeting in which speakers were evaluated on questions of content, structure and the force of their arguments. He thought Toastmasters was only concerned with issues of style (vocal variety, gestures, mannerisms). 

Of course, this example cuts both ways. When I presented Mr. Pittampalli’s thesis at a recent club meeting and led a discussion about the strength of his arguments, one member of our club remarked that the very fact that we were evaluating his claims in terms of their substance was an implicit critique of his thesis– a kind of performative contradiction. (Thanks to Martin Burska for this idea).

After learning that the evaluator at a neighboring Toastmasters club was surprised to hear me evaluate a speech on its merits, rather than on its performative aspects, it occurred to me that one of the reasons Toastmasters speeches focus on speaking style at the expense of substance might be to avoid debate on controversial topics. After all, we can all agree about whether the speaker has his hands in his pockets or not (to use the example of Mr. Pittampalli). But powerful speeches raise powerful issues and stir deep emotions in the listener. And as a result– so the thinking might go—Toastmaster speeches tend to stick to “cocktail party” topics which are inoffensive. One consideration in support of this interpretation is the fact that in the past, Toastmasters has censured speeches on topics like politics or religion. Perhaps this is why contestants for the International Speech Contest choose milk toast over real meat when choosing their topics.

In my view, there is a culture within Toastmasters that promotes the idea that speaking is mainly about delivery. And in the world of competitive speaking contests, this view seems to have won the day, at least for now. But I also think that within Toastmasters there are resources– Mr. Pittampalli cites as an example the Competent Communicator Manual and I cite the judging ballot — for taking another path. And I believe there is a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, especially among a new generation of Toastmasters who are less American, more diverse and more international than in the past. A diversity of members brings with it a diversity of voices and points of view. In Toastmasters, we need to promote that diversity of speech (and speeches) rather than stifle it (and them) with a diet of canned deliveries on predictable topics.

That is one reason Matthias Catón and myself, along with a small group of others, founded Professional Speakers Frankfurt. We are an international club catering to professionals who want to improve their speaking skills. Being a professional speaker does not require holding keynote addresses on the speaking circuit– although some of us do– but it means that whatever you do, your work involves getting others, particularly decision-makers, to listen to you and to act on your ideas. We encourage members to give high quality speeches and workshops and provide each other with extensive feedback designed to contribute to our member’s personal and professional development, using the resources available through Toastmasters International to do so.

Given the culture we are trying to create, we welcome the kind of debate Mr. Pittampalli’s article has set into motion and I personally think his view increasingly resonates with Toastmasters international business professionals residing in cities like Frankfurt.

For my part, I believe that an effective speech is one that accomplishes its goal. If my purpose is to move you tears or move you to action, I am only successful if my speech accomplishes this goal. But more often than not, in the best speeches, this involves a call to action that requires the audience to do something, however small, to “change the world”. On that point, Toastmasters, Mr. Pittamapalli and I agree.

Michael Parker
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