Got to speak on short notice and forgot your notes. Toastmasters can help you recover your composure
Evaluations are a basic part of Toastmasters programs
In the four decades I’ve been in Toastmasters I’ve heard hundreds, possibly thousands, of speaker evaluations. They’ve served their purpose, sometimes well; sometimes not so well. However, they are an essential and a basic part of all Toastmaster programs. We have them and we need them. So when I say ‘not so well,’ what do I mean?
Maybe an Area Contest Meeting - audience size is about right
Evaluations are meant to improve the speaker's performance, but does this happen in Evaluation Contests
Let me give you an example. I recently attended an Area Level evaluation contest where I witnessed the representatives of five different clubs put forward their club champions. The target speaker spoke; the evaluators – after the usual time to take and make their notes – appeared one after the other. To me, two of these evaluators were a ‘cut above’ the others in that their analytical skills, eloquence and command of the English Language. This enabled them to present very subtle but insightful advice on how the speaker could improve the speech we had all just heard. These two were insightful, thoughtful word-smiths who knew exactly what they were doing.
How sharp, how astute are the judges? Will they pick up the suble nuances? Are they really capable of teaching?
I might add that these two evaluators – possibly deliberately – did not emphasize the usual “you needed better eye contact,” and “more vocal variety was required,” and “gestures needed to be improved,” and the like. What I’m saying is they got right into how the speech structure and content could be improved. They were into the content matter more so than the delivery. This is not to say they did not touch upon the obvious delivery shortcomings. They just did not belabor them. They saw their job, I suspect, as providing really valuable, in-depth, advice on subtleties of how this presentation could be improved. They were fine sandpaper not rough.
Toastmasters doesn't generally encourage you to use the lectern
"She won't win - the judges just wont get it"
One of these evaluators was outstanding with her use of words. Her grasp of language and how to use it to effect was as good as I’d ever heard.
Come the tea-break, and before the result of the contest was in, I happened to be speaking with another very experienced Toastmaster. This person, like me, had been in Toastmasters for seemingly ‘eons of time’ and had also no doubt heard a great many speech evaluations. In our conversation I happened to mention who I thought would win this evaluation contest and why. “Such an effective use of language; so insightful, et cetera” said I. To which the reply came back.
“Yes, Tom. You’re right. But she won’t win. The judges just won’t get it.”
Interpreting and analysing what has been said should be paramount
The meaning was plain. The judges would be looking towards the ‘crafted’ evaluation that ticks all the boxes but not necessarily with the emphasis on the Judging Criteria. Analytical skill in interpreting and presenting to the speaker – and the listening audience – rates the top billing. It didn’t get it in this contest. It generally doesn’t in most ‘lower level,’ that is Club or Area Level, contests. What seems to matter most is the amount of ‘soft soap’ the target speaker receives.
The Timing Lights used in Toastmaster Meetings
It seems that 'soft soap' and stroking are more important
So what do I mean by ‘soft soap?’ I’m talking about the exaggeration and superlatives used to praise the speaker; build him or her up, when this is no longer of the importance it was when the speaker was brand new to speaking.
Every speech is not 'great' so why say it is? To label every speech as 'great' is to belittle that which is truly oustanding. Be kind but be frank!
We know much praise is required when a new member has only delivered four or five Toastmaster speeches. We don’t want to make them feel bad about their abilities in these earlier days of membership. They’re already much too self-conscious. This is not to say that an evaluation contest target speaker at an Area Level Contest should not also be praised for their efforts and applauded for what they did well. However, it’s statements such as “ a great speech” when the speech was fairly ordinary, perhaps even bordering on the mediocre, which, I feel, is going a bit far. “That was really a powerful speech.” or “A terrific, riveting speech.” If this was only done once in a while I’d have no reason to comment, but it seems to be done all the time. The most mundane presentations are lauded as if they were a ‘Gettysburg Address.’
She looks confident - but then she probably has notes on that lectern
Be empathatic, be kind, but give them something valuable to take away
The point I make here is that evaluation contest judges put a great deal of emphasis on the ‘sympathetic way’ a speech is evaluated ahead to the analysis of the speech and the suggestions and demonstrations on how to improve it. Stroking is more important than advice, it seems.
The pedantic adherence to judging form rules can ruin an outcome
One very expert speech evaluator I know has pointed out to me that some judges, if they do not hear the phrases “In conclusion,” or “in summary.” or something explicit, rather than implicit, that this is the summary of the evaluation, but is not mentioned in so many words, mark down no points at all in the Summary Section of the Evaluation Judging Form. No points! Incredible! Even if the evaluator did manage to sum up but not use those words which alerted the judge to the fact the evaluation was being summarized. He didn’t signal he was summarizing so he gets no points!
Jock Elliott - a Toastmasters' World Champion Public Speaker
Rehearsed Evaluations might win contests, but do they give maximum help to the speaker?
So what happens? The people who win and move up to enter the higher-level evaluation contests are those who have been successful at club and area levels. Those people are often those who have a set-formulae and a pre-rehearsed evaluations which ticks all the boxes of the criteria on the judging form. They’re more concerned with winning than in giving an evaluation that will benefit the speaker.
If they're inexperienced you can practically write out the evaluation before they've even presented their speech
The speaking experience of those speakers who are encouraged to take up the challenge of becoming a target speaker at Club or Area level is generally not deep. They have not yet mastered either the art or craft of top-rate speaking. This being the case, it is very easy for club and area level evaluators in club and area contests to concoct a largely rehearsed evaluation that already fits about 80% of what the speaker – and the audience, including the judges – needs to hear to sound quite brilliant. Certainly I’ve overheard it being said that some very successful winners of evaluation contests have ‘trotted out their standard evaluation.’
Some Toastmaster Ribbons. Competition is encouraged
Are most Toasmaster Evaluatiors up to the job?
Is there a way around this? In Toastmasters – no. Evaluations and being an evaluator are core requirements. Everyone has to do it. It is a little different in other speaking organizations. For example, when I was a member of Rostrum Clubs of NSW (I had three short periods of membership with same, totaling a couple of years) Rostrum used to have a Master Evaluator who would evaluate the meeting overall – much like our General Evaluator. A Master Evaluator was generally titled a Freeman (a bit like our DTMs in TMI) and of a high level. These were people who were assessed and deemed to have acquired a certain level of skill at this. The evaluations one got were usually of excellent quality. Moreover, they were geared to the level of experience of the speaker. Plenty of praise and building up for the new, less of this for the experienced speaker. With the latter, the emphasis was very much on how to improve every aspect of the speech and how it came across. Master Evaluators were qualified. From memory they’d be the only people permitted to judge at contests.
Once evaluatiors start competing with other evaluatiors, they become more concerned with their own presentation than they do with the speakers progress
During my time with the National Speakers Association of Australia we’d have workshops on presenting. Any evaluations were done only by those running the workshops or courses. There were no contests in evaluating. However, when one did get feedback one knew it was accurate. It wasn’t being stated to win a contest.
When you've arrived you get the big audiences
How can a 'new chum' effectively evaluate a very experienced speaker?
It seems there is little way around improving the way we Toastmasters do our evaluations – and hence our competitions. In a club of small membership it is quite often the case that a member of only a few months experience is called to evaluate of ACS, ACG or DTM. They are told they have to give a point or two for improvement. If they can’t find any, they virtually make them up. “You should move around a little more.” You then deliver the same speech to a different Toastmasters audience in the same way and “You moved around too much.” To ask a new chum to evaluate a man or woman who has perhaps presented a hundred speeches to all manner of audiences is a bit much. But what can a VPE do when there are so few people to call on?
In a contest winning become more important than service
So we need to realize that not only are Toastmaster Evaluations very subjective, they are also hampered in many instances for this need to ‘be gentle on the speaker’ (often to a ridiculous extent) To be more concerned with the speaker’s ego than in ways in which the speech needs to be changed to make it better, is not good evaluating. Unlike the Weather which is recognized as an ‘inexact science,’ Toastmasters seems to insist there is an exact way, rather than an optimum way, to evaluate a speech. Certainly in contests this appears to be the case. Rather than teach, the evaluation becomes a presentation in itself. If it ticks all the right boxes it gets the nod of approval. If it gets the biggest nods of approval it wins. Whether it is the most appropriate evaluation in the circumstances is not a consideration. Winning seems to be all that counts.
More on the writer
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on August 30, 2014:
I spent a year in Toastmasters and I think you make some very good points about evaluators.
Ann Carr from SW England on March 02, 2014:
This is an interesting process to me; I know absolutely nothing about Toastmasters, apart from hearing maybe two in my lifetime.
It brings to mind our Ofsted Inspectors, when they come into school and expect us to tick the boxes. They leave no room for individuality, for intuition, for using the moment in a positive way instead of sticking religiously to the script (or in their case, a lesson plan).
It strikes me that any inspector/assessor/evaluator needs to be flexible enough to recognise innate talent and flair when s/he sees it.
I found this refreshingly different reading; thanks, Tom. Ann