Toastmasters Secrets: The Unwritten Rules

Toastmasters is a great organization, and you can learn a lot, and get a lot out of it, just by following the standard educational program, at least if you find yourself a good club that fits your style and gives you plenty of chances to speak.

But if you want to go farther -- and especially if you want to win contests -- there are a lot of things you need to know which aren't written anywhere in Toastmasters literature. The only way to learn these secrets is word of mouth, from other Toastmasters.

Enough secrecy! Here's a collection of Toastmasters Unwritten Rules. If you have others you think I should add, please let me know.

Saying "Mister Toastmaster"

In this region, there's an unspoken assumption that you're supposed to address your audience -- "Mister/Madam Toastmaster, fellow club members, and honored guests" or something similar -- at the beginning of your speech or very shortly thereafter. We even do it in Table Topics. Why? Nothing in the Basic Manual ever mentions this, and you almost never hear a good speaker outside of Toastmasters beginning a speech this way.

However: it turns out there is a reason for this: speech contests. At the higher levels -- district and above, and probably some divisions and areas -- there's a specific protocol: the Toastmaster of the contest introduces the speaker, walks back to his chair, but then remains standing until the speaker acknowledges him by saying "Madam Toastmaster, Mister Contest Chair", etc. at which point the Toastmaster can sit down. If the speaker doesn't acknowledge the Toastmaster within the first, say, 20-30 seconds of the speech, the Toastmaster gives up and sits down anyway, and the judges all (probably) roll their eyes and write off the speaker as some kind of rude newbie.

So even though it's silly and has no relation to the real world, be sure to use the "Mister/Madam Toastmaster" formula in the first 20 seconds of your speech if you're speaking in a contest above the area level. (But don't actually open with it: that also brands you as a newbie, for not using an attention-getting opening.)

Andrew Cretella pointed out to me that saying "Mister Toastmaster" is written, at least as a recommendation, in the Basic (CC) manual: it's in the introduction to the Icebreaker speech, though the recommendation there is to begin the speech with "Mister Toastmaster ... Ladies and Gentlemen ..." which would never win a contest speech.

Toastmasters talks should avoid religion, politics and other touchy subjects

Certainly it's usually a bad idea to offend your audience. But lots of clubs do allow speeches on political or otherwise sensitive topics. This "rule" varies by club; don't assume all clubs are the same.

What about contests? I've actually heard of contests where a contestant was protested because of including one of these verboten subject areas in his speech. But this is not in the rules anywhere; in theory, you're allowed to talk about anything you like, and it's up to you to avoid offending audience members. (One of our club members gave an excellent humorous speech about religion in a contest, presenting funny situations involving herself and other members of her church. She did a great job, and no one was offended.)

The Toastmasters International site used to have an official page entitled "You Can't Talk About That!", but they reorganized their site and the page no longer seems to exist. But if you google toastmasters "you can't talk about that" (don't forget the quotation marks), you'll probably find discussions of the rule on a variety of club sites.

Is it a podium or a lectern?

I once attended a humorous speech contest where one contestant spoke about about how every Toastmaster knows that you're not supposed to call the thing at the front of the room a "podium", it's a "lectern". Apparently they made a big deal of that in his club. First I'd heard of it -- both of the clubs I belonged to at the time called it a podium. But I've since discovered this is fairly common, and that many clubs -- and speech contest judges -- penalize anyone who says "podium".

One way it's often stated is that a podium is something you stand on (because the root of the word is "pod", meaning foot), though I've also heard people say that the stand where you put your notes can be a podium as long as it touches the floor, but if it sits on a table then it has to be called a lectern.

Some dictionaries, including the OED, agree that a podium is a platform you stand on. Others use it only for something completely different, an architectural term meaning a low wall or foundation. But common usage seems to be swinging toward the use of "podium" for the stand where you put your notes, and some dictionaries reflect that.

Whatever your opinion on the words, be aware if you enter a contest or speak at another club that some Toastmasters unaccountably feel very strongly about this and will downgrade you if you use the word "podium" instead of "lectern".

Please do not email me simply to restating your own definition of podium and lectern. I'd be interested in statistical analyses, or in a list of dictionaries and their definitions of the two words; but the opinions of individual toastmasters doesn't really add any weight to the argument.

Should you judge based on the content, or the presentation?

I once read a letter in Toastmaster magazine that said "Toastmasters literature emphasizes that evaluators and audiences should focus on the delivery of a speech, not the content." On the other hand, the judging sheet for contest speeches reserves 50% of points for content, and only 30% for delivery (the remaining 20% is for language). Which is true? Depends on the evaluator/judge. Me, I think they're both important, but when I'm judging, I try to stick to what the judging sheet says. As a contestant, though, you shouldn't assume all judges are going to do that. In most contests I've seen, most judges judge more on presentation than content.

The International contest is for motivational speeches

The rules for the International contest say you can speak about any topic, and you can certainly enter your area contest with any good speech you choose to enter. Don't expect to get very far with that, though. Most judges, especially at higher levels, expect a motivational speech and will downgrade anything else.

"Speaking Area"

Every contest I've been to has defined a "speaking area" -- usually a rectangular area from right in front of the audience front row back to the wall behind the speaker. No more is said about this "speaking area" or why it has been defined. Speakers, and judges, naturally assume that it is an area beyond which speakers are not supposed to venture. A speaker who does cross the bounds of the speaking area will presumably be disqualified, or marked down by the judges, or (I especially like this one) treated as though any part of his speech that took place outside the boundaries did not happen and was not visible or audible to the audience.

Until 2011 or so the "speaking area" was a fiction, and nothing in the rules mentioned it. Here's what one highly successful competitor and long-time Toastmaster thought it meant:

The Speaking Area, as I undderstand it, is an optimal area for speaking; within that area the lighting will be fine, the technology will work (e.g. range of the wireless mike), and the audience will have clear sightlines, etc. You may venture outside that area, but you take your chances when you do so (e.g. risk of going into a darkly lit spot).

But the contest rulebooks in 2012 (maybe 2011) have added a section about speaking area, and say "The contestants may only speak from within the designated area".

The humorous speaking ballot (for instance) says this under Delivery (30%): "The speaker makes effective use of and stays within the designated speaking area"

But the Contest FAQ says,

Can a contestant be disqualified for speaking outside the speaking area?
No. Disqualifications are limited to eligibility, originality and being over or under on time. The contestant can be marked down on their score by a judge for straying from the speaking area, if the judge felt that it took away from the effectiveness of the speech.
(Thanks to Thomas Rush for alerting me to the new contest rules.)

So should you stay inside the speaking area at a contest? Absolutely -- unless you have an extremely compelling reason for leaving it. Judges may or may not mark you down for it, but do you want to take that chance?

Is there a dress code?

Some clubs apparently encourage formal attire, and consider that an important part of Toastmasters. I've never actually been to a club like that, but I see it mentioned in places like Toastmaster magazine (probably east-coast people are a lot more formal than we are in California).

It may be important for speech contests, though: even people from clubs which dress informally may have ideas about appropriate attire for contests, and generally you'll see more formal dress as you progress up the ladder.

Apparently some regions even have additional unwritten rules, like "women must wear dresses" (and will be downgraded if they're not).

You can't repeat manuals

The written rules say that when applying for any of the Advanced Communicator awards, you can't use a manual you've completed before.

But obviously, this resets at some point, otherwise, when you'd completed all the manuals, you'd be done forever (except for infinite CC awards from then on).

Most people assume that it resets when you get AC-Gold/DTM, but other people insist they've been told by TMI that it only resets after you've completed ALL the manuals. In other words, you have to do every manual in the series, then you can go back to the ones that are useful to you.

After much confusion, Toastmasters finally clarified this on the Educational Awards page:

Each time you complete the series of awards on the communication track (ACB, ACS and ACG), you must complete two new Advanced Communication manuals for each award. This means that each time you earn your ACG award, you will have completed six different Advanced Communication manuals – two for ACB, two for ACS and two for ACG.

When you repeat an award on the Communication track, you are permitted to repeat the manuals used for a previously earned communication award. For example: If you complete The Entertaining Speaker (226A) and Speaking to Inform (226B) for your first ACB, you may repeat these manuals for credit towards your second ACB or any other communication award that you are repeating.

You can not repeat any Advanced Communication Manuals while working toward a single award (ACB, ACS, ACG). For example: You can not complete The Entertaining Speaker (226A) twice for the same ACB.

This seems pretty clear: you can repeat a manual used in the previous bronze-silver-gold cycle, but you can't repeat within the current cycle.

Don't go by the confusing Toastmasters FAQ, though (you have to enable Javascript and expand the "Educational program" category to see it):

Can I repeat the same manual for award credit? If you are repeating an award, you may repeat a manual. If you are applying for a new award, you must use a manual that you have not received credit for yet.

If I read that literally, it says that once you've been through all the awards once, so any further award is a repeat, you can then repeat any manual as often as you want. For instance, you could use Storytelling for your second AC-B, your second AC-S and your second AC-G. I'm fairly sure that's not what they mean to say. But at least it's clear that once you've gotten AC-G, you can start repeating manuals.

Personally, I'm sticking with the Multiple Education Awards page and ignoring the much less clear FAQ.

For subsequent DTMs, you only need ALS and ALG (obsolete?)

A discussion several years ago on the Toastmasters LinkedIn group came to the conclusion that after your first DTM, you can get subsequent DTMs by repeating AL-Silver and AC-Gold. No need to repeat CC and AL-Bronze. Seriously! Never mind that the written rules say that one of the requirements for AC-S is AC-B -- apparently that just means that you needed to get one at some point in your life, and after that you can repeat any award except DTM in any order.

This loophole appears to have been closed, I'm happy to say. Toastmasters now says

You must complete all of the requirements each time you receive an award. This means that in order to receive a second DTM, you must complete another CC, ACB, ACS, ACG, CL, ALB and ALS.