What’s the difference between Toastmasters and a public speaking coach?
Good question. Finding the right type of learning method and environment is important if you want to make headway with your speaking, and it’s confusing to sift through the different options.
Full disclosure: I’m a public speaking coach and trainer (in case that wasn’t abundantly clear). I was also a member of Toastmasters for several years, and I have great respect for the organization. I recommend it to many of my clients, and participating in the Toastmasters speaking contests at the club, area and district level are great experiences.
That being said, while Toastmasters offers lots of opportunity to practice your public speaking, it’s a far cry from directed, focused public speaking coaching or classes. The experience of a Toastmasters meeting isn’t the same as directed speech coaching or public speaking classes – nor should it be! They have different scopes, serve different functions, and I believe they compliment rather than compete with one another.
A public speaking instructor or coach has (or SHOULD have) training, experience, and knowledge of the physical techniques that go into speaking (such as voice work, vocal development, and body language), as well the nuances of performance and the development of presentation/speech content. They should incorporate technique drills and regular practice to build these skills. They’ll be able to give you highly specific feedback, critique, and instruction for what you need to work on.
Toastmasters groups are predominantly made up of people who don’t have formal training or knowledge of advanced speech arts – voice work, content development, performance technique, and so on. The speaking experience of members ranges widely as well. Occasionally, you’ll find clubs with seasoned speaking pros – this is great, and can really amplify the learning experience. All clubs will have novices in their ranks. Ideally, you want to find a mix of veterans and newbies, because it helps create a richer peer-to-peer learning environment. But overall, most members don’t have a great deal of speaking experience outside of Toastmasters and the type of work presentations expected from typical white collar workers. Again, this varies from club to club.
Within Toastmasters, learning activities are based mostly around completing speech assignments according to the Toastmasters manuals. While the manuals do contain some information and instruction regarding speaking technique, they are more focused on the content of each presentation. The manuals will instruct you to do things like “use body language” or “project your voice” but I have found that they give little in terms of discrete, thorough, actionable explanations of HOW to do those things. Additionally, the ability of your group members to teach you how to do things like improve projection or body language will vary. Some of the people there will be very good speakers, some will not be good speakers. Some will give great feedback or suggestions, other’s won’t have the necessary insight. Everyone there will be supportive of your goals, but the quality and consistency of instruction and feedback will vary dramatically. “Be louder” isn’t enough direction to actually figure out how to make your voice richer and project better – an explanation of the mechanics of voice work and projection, along with purposeful activities and drills are what will work – that’s the sort of thing a good coach/instructor can give you.
When you go for coaching or classes led by an experienced, competent, knowledgeable instructor, you will receive specific technical instruction related to voice, body language, and other important aspects of public speaking. These techniques will be taught through drills, demonstration, and highly personalized, in-the-moment feedback and evaluation. The amount of focus given on content creation and speech development versus speaking technique will vary depending on your coaching goals or the focus of the class.
There is also a significant differences in the format of coaching or classes and Toastmasters meetings. Toastmasters meetings follow a specific format. One of the goals of Toastmasters is to develop leadership skills and help people learn to run good meetings according to a specific structure and agenda. For example, part of each meeting is dedicated to evaluating how well people fulfilled their roles within a meeting and evaluating how well the meeting was run. This are really, really desirable skills for people who are involved in meetings on a regular basis, but aren’t terribly relevant if you want to focus solely on your actual public speaking skills.
Public speaking classes and coaching focus entirely on the art and craft of speaking. The time you spend will revolve around speaking skills, not on conducting meetings. This means that the goals and activities in each class or session will be more directed, and you’ll spend more time on individual techniques like voice work or on polishing skills like body language and crafting your talk.
Being able to practice in front of audiences is important. Here’s where Toastmasters has a leg up over many public speaking classes and individual coaching: if you want to be able to test material and content against an audience or get in regular practice in front of a group of people, Toastmasters is your go-to group. You’ll find an eager, supportive audience who is happy to hear your latest talk, will cheer you on, and are ready to give you audience feedback that can really help you polish your content.
Ultimately, I see the difference between Toastmasters and specialized public speaking coaching or classes as being similar to the difference between joining an amateur sports league for general improvement and enjoyment versus hiring an experienced sports coach to significantly boost your performance. Through repetition, regular practice, and the support of your peers, an amateur league can help you become a better soccer player. But if you really, REALLY want to level up your soccer skills, than the focus and expertise of a proper, experienced coach will get you further, faster.
Really, it comes down to what sort of experience you want. Are you mostly wanting the opportunity to get regular practice in front of a warm, encouraging audience? Then Toastmasters is a great option. If you’re wanting fast-tracked, dedicated, individualized improvement in your technique and performance, go for a class or a coach.