Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Toastmasters makes time for practice, but not 10,000 hours

There's a notion that you need to have practiced something for 10,000 hours before you get good at it. Writer Malcolm Gladwell made the idea popular, and writers indeed spend that kind of time honing their trade. Spelling and grammar are just the basics: The only way I could get beyond them was to write, and write often. Working on deadline took practice, but once I met one deadline I became more confident I could meet the next one.

Public speaking takes practice too, but not 10,000 hours worth—or 10 years, if you figure three solid hours a day. Honestly, it doesn't take that long to see results. It does take an audience, but few speakers have logged 10,000 hours in front of a crowd.

Gladwell gets a lot of heat for his 10,000-hour rule, but those who've studied the idea agree with at least one facet of it. Practice will lead to mastery if it's deliberative. That means learning the elements of a skill, taking time to focus on those building blocks, and keeping at it without getting discouraged or burning out.

Amateur speakers have used those three steps for years to practice speaking in YMCAs, church basements and conference rooms. Toastmasters clubs all follow manuals that present the skills in sequence. Members work mindfully on each skill, and the audience gives feedback to improve. One skill bulds on another, and with practice they all come together. So while Toastmasters has a long history, its program fits the current thinking about mastery.

Toastmasters now has a restructuring nearly 10,000 hours in the making. This month it launches as Pathways for clubs in Washington, D.C., northern California and Malaysia. Originally billed as the revitalized education program, Pathways is due for a worldwide rollout.

Still, when Toastmasters did a gap analysis on their program in 2010, they found gaps. Getting through its 10-speech basic regimen can take more than a year, and many people get stuck along the way. A separate leadership track doesn't mesh well with the public speaking program. And the best performers still must learn some skills elsewhere.

The bugs will be worked out by the time we in the Midwest see it (I've been a member since my days on the Society of Professional Journalists board). Then the 345,000 members worldwide have two years or so to finish projects in the current format.

So what does the program look like? The Toastmasters magazine says there'll be more awards, and they'll start earlier. The trick is to keep new members engaged long enough to develop good rehearsal habits. People realize only gradually that they must make change a priority.

Instead of following communication and leadership tracks, speakers will choose from among five basic disiplines to master. At least one choice must be either public speaking or interpersonal communication. That elevates soft skills to new prominence—a welcome change. While few of us need to speak to crowds, we all must navigate relationships.

The program teases out leadership paths too, geared to either managers or advocates. A final core skill to build is confidence, a need that motivates both introverts and extroverts to join.

Projects in all these disciplines get progressively harder. Members work on 10 tracks from presentation mastery to team collaboration. To complete the program as Distinguished Toastmasters, members will finish two tracks and produce a project of their own design.

More coaching will be dispensed on the web, a format that helps tailor the program to personal needs. An online assessment matches the tracks to members' goals and skills. Depending on their interests, they can work from manuals as before or with with videos and other online resources. In the club meetings, evaluators have more guidance on what to look for.

All these new features share a big benefit: They show speakers where to improve, and how to rehearse with impact. The changes give speakers more direction, more focus, and more feedback. These are the three elements to deliberative practice. Now this popular training regimen makes a serious commitment to mastery, without asking for a 10,000-hour commitment. We'll see how soon it gets results.

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