Review of Toastmaster manuals

by Akkana Peck, AC-G, OCL, Coherent Communicators and GeoSpeakers.

You're a Toastmaster who's about finished with your CC and wondering which two manuals to order for your next projects. Sometimes it's hard to tell much from the sketchy description TMI has online, and oddly, there doesn't seem to be much discussion of them on the web.

If you search, you can eventually find a list of the projects involved in each manual (the best I can find right now is this page from District 1; District 19 used to have one but it seems to be gone now). But that still doesn't tell you how well written or relevant the projects are, or -- most important -- are they helpful? And are they fun?

So here are my own biased opinions of the manuals I've seen.

Manuals I've used


Helpful: 10. Fun: 7

I found the "basic manual" quite useful. I tend to scorn beginner-oriented stuff and usually prefer to skip ahead, but in this case I found all of the basic manual projects useful and the descriptions helpful. Naturally, I needed a lot of help in some areas and only a little in others, but all ten projects taught me something I needed to learn, while leaving lots of latitude for me to choose any topic I liked.

I'm planning to go back and run through the basic manual again -- its projects apply to advanced speakers as well as beginning ones.


Helpful: 9. Fun: 8

The Basic manual gently steers you in the direction of The Entertaining Speaker as one of your next two choices by giving a copy of its first project. It's a good choice; these five projects teach skills that nearly everyone needs to learn (I certainly did) while offering plenty of flexibility to talk about pretty much anything you like.


Helpful: 9. Fun: 7

Nearly all of my public speaking outside of Toastmasters is on technical topics (computing, math or physical science) so I knew I wanted either this or the Technical Presentations manual. I'm glad I chose Speaking to Inform first. Its projects give you a lot of latitude while still teaching lots of useful skills. I had a lot of fun preparing these speeches. I've been through this manual twice now.


Helpful: 8. Fun: 10

Hands down my favorite manual!

Continuing with my "one light-hearted, one serious" theme, I chose Storytelling for my third advanced manual. I loved it. This is by far the most fun of all the Toastmaster manuals I've used, and I want to go back through the manual a second time just for fun. But it wasn't just fun -- I learned a lot and got to practice some important skills. Very highly recommended.

The final project (Bringing History to Life) is difficult. It's very hard to find the right story, something with dialogue, character and plot development that fits into a speech of this length. Everyone I've talked to seems to have just as much trouble with it as I had. But don't give in to the temptation to cheat and do something that doesn't quite meet the goals (as I've seen some people do). I tried four or five ideas, writing most of a speech each time, before I found one that really worked as an interesting 10-minute speech with plot, conflict, characters and dialog.

Sounds like a lot of work, right? But the process of discovering why the others didn't work was just as important as the speech I ended up giving. The extra work wasn't wasted. I learned a lot about what makes a good "story" speech. I also learned about several interesting historical figures, and was able to recycle some of the material into later speeches for other projects.


Helpful: 6. Fun: 5

I give mostly technical talks. So this manual should be right up my alley, better than the more general Speaking to Inform ... right?. Well, not really. The projects are a lot harder (which should be a good thing), but that's mostly because they're much more specific and don't allow a lot of latitude.

I still got to practice valuable skills, but it was sometimes frustrating trying to bend these exercises into something that covered the skills I needed to learn. Also, the Team Technical Presentation, while it's a nice idea and sometimes does happen in the real world, doesn't translate well to Toastmasters clubs: you either have to get a colleague to come to your Toastmasters meeting, or (what I've seen most people do) prepare a script and hand it to a victimvolunteer from your club, who then reads it verbatim.

Update: This manual has been updated since I first went through it, and I'm happy to say that the Team Technical Presentation has been replaced by "Enhancing a Technical Talk with the Internet". Sounds like an interesting and unusual project; I'm working through the new manual now, and will be interested to see how well this works. On the down side, the new version is polluted by a lot of commercial references to "Microsoft Powerpoint" -- feel free to ignore that and use whatever visual aids you prefer.


Helpful: 7. Fun: 5

I thought this would be like the Entertaining book, only more fun. Not so. The projects are so detailed that finding a topic that lets me meet the very specific requirements of each project (e.g. start with a self-deprecating joke, end with a funny story, and in between have two or three sets of several related jokes each -- all in 5-7 minutes!) turned out to be quite challenging and sometimes not a lot of fun. Also, the example jokes in the book aren't very funny and don't apply very well to real-world speeches. I guess the lesson I took away from this book was: being funny is hard work! And you can't easily teach it in a book.


Helpful: 6. Fun: 5

I was so tempted to order Interpretive Reading instead. But I'm doing a lot of conference speaking now, and this book promised skills I know I need.

Unfortunately, this manual is by far the worst written I've encountered yet. The projects are ill-specified, full of touchy-feely jargon, and they lack any clear understandable goals for either the speaker or the evaluator.

Do I regret choosing it? Grudgingly, I'll say no, because the projects themselves are still skills I needed to learn. Just don't take the instructions too seriously, and make sure your evaluator knows what you care about, as opposed to the book's incomprehensible check-lists (actual question from one project: "Did the speaker use appropriate humor to create a lightness of spirit in meeting audience expectations?")

Also: another sales project. What is it with Toastmasters thinking we're all sales people -- or should be?


Helpful: 4. Fun: 5

I started this manual hoping that reading existing material would help me focus on delivery, specifically vocal variety and body movement, rather than content.

To some extent that is true, and for the first three projects it was fun choosing material and presenting it. But I couldn't help feeling like I was missing a lot of practice in not getting the chance to write these five speeches. Look at it this way: half of my Toastmaster speeches that year were reading someone else's material.

The few other people I know who have done this manual all talked about dreading project 4, The Play, where you have to act out several different characters' parts. I thought it didn't sound too bad -- but once I got to that point I began to dread it myself. I did get through it, and got favorable comments from my reviewer, but I'm not convinced I learned anything worthwhile from the exercise.

In hindsight, this would be an ideal manual to keep around for several years in addition to whatever two manuals I'm working. I was frustrated with it when I felt it blocked me from writing my own speeches; but the projects would be great as occasional exercises.

Manuals I've read but not completed

Here are some manuals I've ordered, intending to use them, but after reading through the projects I've ended up letting them sit. I may still work on these projects gradually as opportunities present themselves.


(recently renamed from THE DISCUSSION LEADER)

A fellow club member recommended this manyal very highly -- she said it was her favorite so far -- so I chose this as my next manual.

She particularly liked the way the projects included unpredictable events (for instance, responding to something club members might say in a discussion) so it helped her learn how to run an event that isn't fully scripted and rehearsed. The only difficulty was that the projects take a lot of time and can't easily be cut shorter, which can be difficult to fit into a typical 2-speaker club meeting.

Now that I have the manual, I'm a little disappointed. I was hoping it would help me incorporate audience discussions and feedback into my educational presentations -- for instance, keeping students engaged while teaching them programming. But the projects are very specific and four of the five present almost the same model, where you guide the audience to choose one or more solutions from an initial list.

While that's not a bad skill to learn, I'm not sure that four separate 20-minute projects all toward this objective really suit my goals much, and I put the manual aside.

Like Interpretive Reading, this is probably a good manual to keep around for when you need to lead a discussion, perhaps about club business -- but not a good manual to work through at once all in a single year.


I don't do television (save one appearance on Toastmasters Bay2Bay), but I ordered this manual because I thought some of the skills mentioned in the project titles -- interviewing, commentary -- would be useful. But once I actually had the manual in hand, I discovered that these aren't solo projects: most of them require a teammate who's working through the same manual. For example, you have to be both interviewer and interviewee (two separate projects), so you interview them for one project, they interview you for the other. It sounds like it would be fun to do if you can talk a friend into doing it with you. Perhaps some day, someone in one of my clubs will try it; until then, the manual sits on my shelf.

I've heard it's being updated for new technology, like video cameras, which would be an improvement.

Some other manuals:

Here are some manuals I haven't used, but have seen or discussed with other Toastmasters members. If you have a manual you'd like me to list here, let me know -- I'm happy to add comments from other people.


Everybody needs to learn persuasive speaking techniques, right? Even if you mostly give technical talks, you may want to argue for your point, or advocate a particular type of technology. But take a look at the titles of this manual's projects. The first two are purely sales techniques. The other three might be more useful, but I hate to order a manual where 40% of the projects strike me as annoying and irrelevant to my needs.

Apparently (an old-timer told me) this officially used to be a sales manual, but they changed the title (to try to sucker more people into buying it?) without changing the content. Sigh. I wish Toastmasters would offer a real Persuasive Speaking manual.


I don't often need to give this sort of speech (toast, roast, presenting/accepting awards) so I don't have much interest in this manual myself. But I've watched several other people work through it and they seem to enjoy it well enough. It's my impression that the projects don't usually fit very well into a Toastmasters context, but you could make the same argument about the "Professional" manual. If you need these skills, you can make them fit. Many of them are very short (3 min).

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