When I first started with Toastmasters (TM) I thought it was just about speaking (prepared and impromptu) and evaluating. There were of course some other “minor” roles – “ah counter”, timer, grammarian. But I never quite noticed the significance of the role of the Toastmaster of the Evening (TME) and I sure had no idea just how much work and how much fun it could be.
When you think about it, the fact that each and every TM evening is a well organized and smoothly running event, cannot be a coincidence. There must be somebody preparing and guiding through the whole program and that is, you must already be guessing it, the TME. The fact that I initially almost failed to notice the existence of this “host of the evening”, means that the TMEs in question were doing a great job. It also means that the speeches and the table topics were so overwhelming that I couldn’t pay attention to anything else. But after having been a TME, my TM experiences have acquired a whole new dimension!
As most first times, my first time as a TME could easily have turned into a disaster. Preparing a seven minute speech is nothing compared to preparing a seamlessly running 2 hour evening. Luckily, I had been a general evaluator at the previous meeting. As a general evaluator you reflect on the strong and weak points of a night’s organization and you learn to pay attention to all that needs to be accounted for and taken care of. Being a general evaluator before taking up a TME role is in fact the single most important tip I could give to any aspiring TME. As a general evaluator I not only observed Tessa’s excellent work as a TME in order to report at the end of “her” evening but I also made my own TME do’s and don’ts list, which I could use in two weeks time when it was my turn.
Or so I hoped. Meticulously following my new list, I started preparing immediately, two weeks in advance. Coming up with a theme was easy: “Religion, Faith, Belief” is a topic I would love to explore with my fellow toastmasters. Posting the theme well in advance was a handy move, thanks to which some of the eventual speeches were related to my theme. People even e-mailed me to let me know they liked the theme. This was already becoming fun!
I didn’t need to worry about selecting the speakers, as they had already been predetermined in our speakers’ rooster. I did have to distribute other roles. That was turning into a challenge: we do use the online easyspeak tool, which is quite handy, but not everybody had indicated their presence. I was also trying to accommodate people who need the roles for their Competent Leadership manuals, make sure nobody gets the same role twice in a row, and that the speakers were to be evaluated by people from whose feedback they could benefit the most. While I was complotting the distribution of the various roles, I got an automatic e-mail notification that the almighty rooster master had been assigning roles for me! I was just starting to enjoy the power that I had to set up the evening as I see fit, and somebody was interfering with my TME freedom! Marc was of course only trying to help, I bet he was wondering whether I would be able to pull it off as a TME newbie. But I had already discovered the kick you can get out of designing a TM night by yourself and I wouldn’t let him interfere… When my printer refused to print the agenda’s mere two hours before the meeting, Marc was the first person I called for help…
The two weeks of preparation had meant a lot of work and a higher phone bill, but it was finally 15th of May and “my” evening was about the begin. Glasses on and hair pulled back, I was ready to lead the toastmasters and the guests through my carefully planned night and I had put my mind to starting and finishing on time. A more experienced Toastmaster would see that coming, but I was taken aback when a couple of people cancelled last minute or showed up too late. I had to act on the spot and quickly reshuffle the agenda. Later that night I actually forgot half of the things I had been planning, but it turned out I was coping well with the unexpected.
My vow to finish on time, for example, was not destined to become a reality. My own opening note was longer than planned: I didn’t even see the red card of the timer! I must have turned temporarily colorblind from all the excitement. I use the same excuse for the other misser of the night: me forgetting to initiate the vote for the best speaker. At a bit weird later moment I suddenly remembered about the voting and decided to go ahead with it immediately, in the middle of the evaluations. So much with my planning. At the point when we were having the table topics, we were already quite behind schedule and after three creative questions from the table topic master Cristina, I very reluctantly gave her a sign to round up. But the table topics were as funny and interesting as ever. No surprise that the audience looked at me disapprovingly when I decided we need to move on. That’s all that I needed: if they don’t mind sitting for a bit longer, who was I to stop the fun? Two more wonderful questions Cristina style and one of the best table topic sessions of the year was over, the TM evening (or at least the official part of it) nearing its end. The meeting had lasted for well over the two hours allotted, but to me it felt like two short minutes.
Being a TME for the first time made me see the club and its members in a whole different light. While organizing the night I got to talk to people a lot more and to know them better. It was a time-consuming but a very rewarding experience. What I took home that night was the conclusion that, no matter how well you plan, things can always go wrong, but also that there’s always a “on the spot” solution. Keeping an open mind and thinking of such solutions, as well as having the decisiveness to implement them, turned out to be the best part of my first TME experience.