Toastmasters Clubs Build Conversation Skills, Too!

I recently received an email “interview” from a freelance writer who is planning on writing an article on conversation skills for The Toastmaster magazine.  The second question asked me to comment on how Toastmasters has helped me in conversation skills.  I had never really thought that out much before!  I realize, yet again, the great benefit I have received through my involvement with Toastmasters.  Please comment to add something about how Toastmasters has helped your conversation skills!

1: How important do you believe conversational skills are to the average Toastmaster, or the average businessman or woman, for that matter? Why?

Conversational skills are critically important to the average business person, especially if they don’t want to remain “average.”  From small talk that can lead the way to more profitable “big talk,” to the nuances of body language and facial expressions, to the more difficult conversations, in-person communication skills can still make-or-break many business or personal opportunities. Technology-enabled communications (texting, email, social media postings, and even video conferencing) cannot completely eliminate face-to-face conversation, nor should they!

2: Has Toastmasters helped you with your conversational skills? Please explain how.

Toastmasters has helped me improve my conversational skills in many ways:

  1. Table topics cause me to think quickly on my feet and come up with a response.  This impromptu speaking has direct application to conversation.  Often someone asks us a question and we need to respond right away.
  2. Prepared speeches give me both an opportunity to work on material that I might later use in conversation and also a chance to practice it out loud and receive feedback.
  3. Prepared speeches specifically give me an opportunity to work on stories that I can tell later in conversations.  Nothing engages like a story!
  4. Evaluations require that I listen carefully.  Listening is really the greater part of conversations.  Or, at least it should be!
  5. Participation in club and district events, and helping prepare for events, requires lots of communication with lots of different people.  Toastmasters gives me practical applications for conversation.
  6. Learning from other people’s speeches.  A few years ago, one of my club members gave a speech on dealing with mentally ill people in which he talked about the LEAP method (Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner).  I started using that method right away with my teenagers in our conversations and it took our conversations from frustrating to friendly!

 3: What do you think is the most important thing to remember about communication in social settings? This might be making eye contact, having something noteworthy to say, expressing an interest in the other person, etc. 

You just never know where a conversation might take you, even in social settings!  My husband,  many of my best friends and even some business opportunities have come from conversations in social settings!  In a social setting, I think the most important thing to do is to “click” with the other person, because that’s really the only way you will open up the doors to potential friendships, romantic relationships or even business opportunities.  The easiest way to initially “click” with another person is to find “common ground” so that they can see the similarities between you both.  Many studies have shown that people who see you as like themselves will like you more!  How this happens, practically, is to first be engaging by being pleasant, by making eye contact and finding something to say that leads toward common ground.  It could be a comment about the event or the food.  And then, following up the comment with a question.  Here’s a blog I wrote about the “Observe—Transition—Ask”  technique.

 4: How important is it, in effective communication, to listen? Do you have any advice about how to do this?  

If you want to have a conversation, you have to listen!  You can communicate without listening, but that won’t happen in conversation!  In order to have the back-and-forth that is required in a conversation, you have to listen for the content and mood that your partner is conveying.  That means listening not only to the words that are said, but also to the tone of voice, and to use your “eyes” to listen for the non-verbal aspects of communication (body language, eye contact, facial expressions).  Then, as you take in the information, you can use it to further the conversation, even if only reflecting back what you heard, to let the other person know you understood (e.g. “It sounds like . . .So, what you’re saying is . . .).

Also, if you are listening carefully, you can ask questions that connect with what was just said.  The biggest tip to listening is to focus completely on the other person.  Don’t be thinking about what you will be doing later or how you can fit in that story you’re dying to tell.  Give them your full attention, lean in a little, face them and look them in the eye while they are talking.  Ask questions to get them to clarify or restate things to help you understand better. Then you can also restate or rephrase what they said to enhance your understanding.  It’s OK to ask them to rephrase something in a way that is easier for you to “listen” to.  If you really need a visual to understand something—ask the other person to sketch a picture.  If you need something more concrete, ask for an example.  You don’t have to be a passive listener in conversation!

5: Please add anything you would like with regard to learning or improving conversational skills.

Because so many people have a hearing loss (my husband is hearing impaired, and a Toastmaster), I feel it is important to realize that you may need to modify your conversation skills so that you can have effective communication with the hearing impaired.  I made up an acronym FACE for some tips in talking with the hearing impaired.

F: Face the other person so that he or she can see your lips and facial expressions.

A: Adjust volume and rate.  You may need to speak slightly louder and slightly slower than normal (but don’t over do this, or it distorts speech)

C: Clarify.  If your hearing-impaired conversation partner asks you to repeat something, try rephrasing in different words.  You may need to write down complicated instructions.

E: Empathize.  If you start to become frustrated, imagine what it might be like to converse while wearing earplugs.  It’s not easy.

Note:  I speak professionally on interpersonal communication and have written 2 related books:

 Small Talk Big Results:  Chit Chat Your Way to Success (the FACE and LEAP acronyms are in the book)

Perfect Phrases for IceBreakers (coauthor)


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

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