When you "talk up Toastmasters" to friends and co-workers, do they wince at the word "meeting"? That's because meetings are considered among the top 10 of time-wasting activities. If people react negatively to the idea of adding one more commitment to their overloaded schedule, how can you convince them that Toastmasters is something totally different: a meeting they will enjoy and appreciate?
First, you may want to take a look at how your club runs its meetings. Does your program avoid time-wasting pitfalls? Successful meetings are productive, conveniently scheduled and well-organized. They start and end on time. Unsuccessful meetings ignore these basic strategies, and the result is wasted time, frustration and even more reluctance to attend future meetings.
Ducks on a pond are graceful, serene and seemingly effortless in their ability to reach their destination. The casual observer only sees their progress above the water; what goes unseen is the energetic paddling under the surface. Discreet but determined effort allows the duck to stay in control of where he goes. To make your meetings flow smoothly, much of your "paddling" will be done out of sight as well. Let's start with efforts that can be made before the meeting begins.
Define your purpose. What do you want to accomplish? The most important planning step is to determine whether you should hold a meeting at all. When there are so many other communication options available, it makes sense to determine whether another medium (e-mail, a phone call) would be more effective in accomplishing your objective.
As a Toastmaster, you already know the value and purpose of your club meetings, but potential members may have a vague or inaccurate idea of what you do and why you do it. Don't assume that everyone knows the purpose of Toastmasters meetings; make sure your promotional materials say more than "Anytown Toastmasters, 125 Main Street, Tuesday at 7 p.m." Boost your attendance by adding the words "Guests welcome" and a statement of purpose: "Practice and improve communication and leadership skills in a supportive, fun and friendly environment." A simple description of your objectives will clarify to guests and potential members why this meeting is being held.
Determine the best time to hold the meeting. Before finalizing the meeting date and time, confirm that your key players - and the key information you need - will be available.
Even though your Toastmasters club meeting time was established to suit your original membership, circumstances may change and affect attendance. Many clubs have adjusted their meeting time after confirming more members can attend. (Or they alternate lunch with evening meetings, Tuesday nights with Thursday nights, etc.)
When you become aware of a major conflicting event, such as a Toastmasters club-officer training or division speech contest, don't cancel your regular meeting; reschedule it. Rather than force your members to choose between two important commitments, move your club meeting to another date or time, and give everyone the opportunity to attend both gatherings.
Create and distribute the agenda. A well-prepared agenda should be distributed (via hard copy or e-mail) at least 48 hours before the meeting. Be sure to state:
Prepare the meeting space. Avoid any last-minute, preventable inconveniences:
While most of our club meetings use the same equipment and facilities, the Toastmaster of the Day still contacts everyone on the agenda (especially a visiting district officer or guest speaker) to determine whether they have unique requirements for this meeting.
Conscientious clubs also prepare for unexpected meeting needs. Do you have enough chairs to accommodate several extra guests? Do you know whom to contact if the air conditioner, electricity or plumbing is not working properly?
Start and end on time. If you want to gain a reputation for running efficient meetings, make punctuality a priority during the planning stage. Take a hard look at your agenda and be realistic about whether you've set aside enough time for the meeting to achieve its goals. It is better to schedule two shorter meetings than one long meeting.
State your start time and end time on the printed agenda, and stick to them. Don't reward latecomers by delaying the meeting; respect the people who arrive on time by starting on time. Since a Toastmasters session may begin without one (or more) of its key participants, your club should plan ahead to address this situation. Advance preparation can include:
If you still end up with a few extra minutes at the end of the program, don't hesitate to adjourn early. You'll have more time to chat with guests and socialize before you leave the meeting area.
Despite your careful planning and preparation, a meeting may still fall victim to unexpected delays, confusion and other challenges. Facilitators must stay alert in their efforts to achieve their purpose while respecting the time and needs of participants. Now let's look at some choices you can make during the meeting to ensure you reach your meeting destination with a sense of satisfaction and achievement, overcoming changes of the wind and tide.
Announce the meeting's purpose. Make sure everyone understands why you asked them to be present. Open the meeting by stating your purpose, and include a description of the goals to be achieved. For example, "We will review the three proposals for a new meeting space and finalize our decision about where and when to move our group."
It is also important to clarify who will be voting. Toastmasters who serve on a club executive board may be invited to share their opinions, but not to vote. When an issue needs to be brought up for vote among all members, such as for club officer elections, you'll need a quorum of active club members. Ensure that this is announced and understood prior to beginning the discussion, and that it is followed during the voting process.
For all Toastmasters meetings, a club's statement of purpose is the club mission statement. It should appear on your meeting agenda, and be read aloud by the Officer of the Day. This allows all members and guests to observe and evaluate how the meeting program supports the club's mission.
Stick to the agenda. A competent facilitator will maintain control and refer to the printed agenda throughout the meeting. He or she will set time limits for discussion and move to the next agenda item at the scheduled time.
In Toastmasters club meetings, it is also important for facilitators to stick to the agenda and gently redirect when the meeting starts to drift. This is especially important when a tardy participant or empty speaking slot gives the impression that there is "extra" time to be filled.
Keep the meeting pace dynamic and upbeat. Follow Toastmasters International's standards and proven format. A tardy participant can be moved to a later slot in the program, replaced with another participant or rescheduled for the next meeting. When given a choice, most people would prefer a shorter meeting that stays on track to one that has been stretched to fill the meeting time.
Include and support all participants. Encourage participation by all, one conversation at a time. Welcome diverse input and maintain a safe, open atmosphere.
In regular club meetings, give every member and guest at least one opportunity to speak. All guests should be given an opportunity to introduce themselves at the beginning of the meeting and offer a comment at the end. Members who missed the opportunity to speak during the program can also be invited to share a comment before the meeting is adjourned.
Debrief. The meeting facilitator should repeat each decision and resolution as it is made. When action items are assigned, the facilitator should also confirm the time frame for these actions.
One important element of every meeting is the debriefing session. To debrief, select one of the following questions and present the same question to each person in attendance:
But don't just ask the questions; schedule a time for your executive team to discuss the feedback. Be willing to make adjustments that address recurring areas for improvement. When subsequent meetings show a greater capacity to fulfill their stated purpose, it validates your commitment to the group and assures that future sessions will be successful and satisfying.
Provide direction for future action. Document the success of every business meeting by appointing a minute-taker to record the major conclusions, decisions and action assignments as they occur. The final version of these minutes should be distributed to all interested parties within 48 hours, including those in attendance and those who missed the meeting. In addition to the finalized matters, the meeting minutes should include a list of unfinished business items, so that they can be added to the next meeting agenda.
I was once blessed with a Toastmasters club secretary who returned to her desk after each club meeting and edited her archival copy of the agenda. She updated participant names and speech titles, added the timer's report data for each manual speech to accurately reflect the meeting as it was conducted on that day. She also attached a copy of the sign-in sheet that documented the names of members and guests in attendance. These records created a wonderful history for our club and preserved countless details that otherwise would have been forgotten.
Whenever a duck attempts to traverse a pond, it has no way of knowing how the wind or tide may affect its journey. The duck's past experience has strengthened its "paddling" muscles, and taught it to anticipate and overcome challenges along the way. While its progress may not always be smooth and steady, it learns from each new outing. When you encounter meeting obstacles, see them as an opportunity for you to apply your own instincts and knowledge. Stay afloat, keep paddling and focus on reaching your meeting destination. Good luck and enjoy the trip!