Why do people join Toastmasters? If you ask them, many say, “To improve my communication skills.” Ask them to be more specific and typical responses are, “I want to improve my presentation skills.” or, “I want to speak better.”, or even, “I don’t want to be so nervous talking in front of groups.” Did you give a similar response? What is not a typical response is, “I want to improve my listening skills.” An interesting characteristic of Toastmasters meetings is that when we improve our listening skills, aspects of our speaking skills improve as well. That’s why when you give the gift of listening at a Toastmasters meeting you are also receiving a gift in return. 

What is listening? It means “to give attention to”. Listening is an intentional activity. We make the choice to listen and, therefore, be present. Listening creates a connection between speaker and listener. Listening strengthens relationships. It’s a gift. 

The gift of listening during a Toastmasters meeting is necessary, for, without it, effective feedback can’t be given. We’ll see what the gift of listening looks like during a Toastmasters meeting, by examining it through the meeting roles of Toastmaster, Speaker, Table Topics Master, Table Topics Speaker, General Evaluator, Evaluator, Timer, Ah Counter, and Grammarian. 

  • Toastmaster 

Their gift of listening is to be ready to receive control of the meeting back after each speech and at the conclusion of the Table Topics and Evaluation portions of the meeting. Also, listening for comments along the way and creating connections using these comments helps build camaraderie among the members and guests. 

  • Speaker 

They have the opportunity, and some might say challenge, of giving several gifts of listening. The first gift is listening to their audience, for example, when they ask the audience a question or note the audience’s non-verbal communication. If the majority of the audience looks like they’re distracted, the speaker can either make a mental note of this to help avoid this in future speeches or, if comfortable, do something in real-time to re-engage the audience. 

The second gift is to listen to the oral evaluation of their speech. The evaluator is working on their speaking skills while delivering their evaluation. Even if the speaker disagrees with some of their evaluation it’s important to be an effective listener for their evaluator and remember to ask them questions after the meeting for any needed clarification. 

  • Table Topics Master 

They listen to who is present at the meeting. This gift of listening allows them to first pose their questions to club members without an assigned meeting role, and guests. This leads to another type of gift – participation – in the club meeting.

  • Table Topics Speaker 

They listen to the question, asked by the Table Topics Master, in order to be able to answer it. The gift of listening is in staying focused on the question asked, when possible, or including a reason for the shift to another topic. 

  • General Evaluator 

They have the most listening-intensive role of all – to evaluate the entire Toastmasters meeting. Their biggest gift of listening is to listen throughout the meeting and note what went well and recommendations for what could use improvement. 

One area that is often skipped during the General Evaluator’s report is their evaluation of the evaluators. This is probably the most difficult for the General Evaluator because they need to listen closely to the speeches and evaluations, to know if the evaluators covered at least one point for improvement for the prepared speech. I have experienced some of my fastest growth in Toastmasters when I took on the General Evaluator’s role several times in a row because there weren’t any volunteers. 

  • Evaluator 

They listen closely to their assigned speaker’s speech. Their gift of listening is to listen for areas where the speaker did well, areas where the speaker could improve, and specific recommendations for improvement. 

  • Timer 

Their gift of listening is given to the prepared speakers, table topics speakers, and evaluators. The gift is to mark the start and endpoints of the talks and obtain accurate timings to support these members’ growth. In particular, the Timer listens for the first verbal or non-verbal cue from a speaker, or evaluator, to the audience, in order to start the timing. This holds true on stopping the timing, as well, based upon the last uttered word or non-verbal expression. As a side-note, it’s helpful, and a good transition tool, to make the timer’s job easier at the end of the speaking time, by passing the proverbial speaking torch to the appropriate leader of that portion of the meeting, as in, “Toastmaster”, or “Table Topics Master”, or “General Evaluator”. 

A big challenge for the Timer occurs when they’re listening to a speech with content of great interest to them. They need to remain focused enough to show the timing cards/lights/devices at the appropriate times. 

  • Ah-Counter 

They listen for filler words, such as “and”, “so”, and “you know”. They also listen for filler sounds, such as “ah”, “um”, and “er”. Their gift of listening supports meeting participants to gain awareness on what particular filler words and sounds they are using in order to reduce their use of them. 

  • Grammarian 

They listen for misuses of the language, as well as, interesting and notable descriptive phrases and metaphors. Also, the Grammarian often listens for mention of the “Word of the Day” by the meeting participants. 

This is one of those roles that often intimidates both native and non-native speakers. Since Toastmasters is an International organization, there are Toastmasters clubs worldwide run in different languages. In my experience, as a native English speaker, using proper grammar in one’s own language is hard enough, let alone trying to use it as a non-native speaker. This is why the gift of listening may be more challenging to give in this role, but think of the following African proverb as encouragement to take this role on: “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” 

We’ve completed our look at the gifts of listening in terms of particular meeting roles. There is one more gift of listening worth mentioning – the one that all meeting participants can give. That gift is listening for something each prepared speaker did well, something that could be improved, and a specific recommendation for improvement, all provided via written feedback. 

As you partake in the holiday season and try to come up with the perfect gifts to give, remember the priceless gift of listening, that you can give to your fellow Toastmaster club members. It’s a gift you can keep giving all year long. Happy Holidays!

Written by: Becky Divinski DTM – District 101 San Jose Toastmasters Club #1577