Toastmasters is an organization that was started as a way for people to work on their public speaking skills. It was originally just an offshoot of a YMCA club in California but has grown into a worldwide organization. While most people join Toastmasters to learn how to speak many find that it improves you in different ways than expected.
Personally I joined Toastmasters so I could learn how to speak better at developer conferences. When I was a kid I could barely talk to people on the telephones and still to this day suffer from major shyness. Toastmasters was an obvious organization where I could learn how to speak better and become a better communicator.
But what I really find valuable isn’t the speaking skills but instead the other factors of Toastmasters:
- Evaluating effectively
- Being structured but flexible
- Supporting instead of arguing
Effective Evaluations: Spoken Peer Review
In a normal Toastmaster meeting you’ll listen to prepared speeches, get the chance to speak off the cuff as well as hear spoken evaluations on the prepared speeches. The evaluation portion is where I’ve learned effective skills for my work as a developer.
When I started programming professionally I would consistently write comments like: “WTF IS THIS SHIT”, “that was stupid”, and things that were in hindsight unproductive. Over years of honing my ability to evaluate software I’ve found myself following the normal Toastmaster 3-2-1 approach which is a modified sandwich.
In a normal evaluation it’s important to be more positive than negative. A lot of people talk about saying two positive things to every negative. Instead many of us when we give spoken evaluations take a different approach: 3-2-1.
3 things you did well
2 things I’d suggest for improvement
1 thing I love about this
Many times pull requests will be fraught with comments that have no focus on improvement and are purely negative.
This sounds overly positive but the important nuance to realize is that the 2 things you suggest for improvement should be substantial enough to warrant pointing them out. Comments such as “whitespace needed here” should be relegated to bots to fix not people.
This type of evaluation isn’t static either it can take many different styles which gets me to the second thing I’ve learned being structured but flexible.
Structured and flexible
Sometimes organizing a Toastmaster meeting can be a bit like herding cats, people have lives and sometimes can’t show up or get stage fright when they are scheduled to speak. But one thing is constant: the roles are well defined, and the meeting runs on time.
Toastmasters has taught me the value of having an agenda for a meeting. Most meetings have timings down to the minute. The beauty is that even if we stray from the original plan we know how to get back on track.
This has taught me that discipline as a developer is key either in planning or writing code.
Discipline and structure
Unfortunately Agile, XP, and other software project management has gotten a bit out of hand. A lot of the times Agile I’ve seen degrade into “code now, plan later.” The Agile manifesto never said you shouldn’t plan ahead.
The biggest gripe I have with many startups and companies I’ve worked for is the lack of a process. While it’s boring, and not as fun to write documentation, having it there for later is extremely helpful in case we get off track.
This gets me to my last point, instead of derailing a project based on politics and not sticking to a plan Toastmasters has taught me how to be supportive and have fun.
Supportive and Fun
In the club I meet in every week, we have a retired Berkeley Professor, as well as a card carrying NRA member. They don’t see eye to eye on a lot of political issues, but in the end are extremely supportive to each other. We have a member who gives some of the weirdest speeches and yet people still support him wholeheartedly.
The biggest black mark on the development community is a lack of support. It amazes me how difficult it is for my wife to find work within startups while I coast along finding work after work. I have a huge advantage as a white male who happens to share the same height as a high proportion of CEO’s of the world. What it really comes down to is that many of us in the development community don’t celebrate different ideas. Even me, when I went to my first Ruby Conf was scoffed at cause I was programming in PHP.
We have a lot of work to do still on this front and I am doing the best I can to support people and different ideas.
Overall I love Toastmasters and it’s taught me a lot. It’s a good way to practice speaking skills, but more importantly learn how to evaluate people, discipline yourself and support others.