A few incidents have been brought to my attention recently where inadvertent comments or presentations on “touchy subjects” made at meetings have caused offense or upset. To be clear, these are rare exceptions. In general, our club is high performing, friendly and inviting and representative of a diversity of perspectives.
It is fairly certain that in all of these instances, the offense was unintended and the discriminatory statements were also unintended and a result of unconscious bias.
As we enter the holidays, when many of us do some introspection about the past year and set goals and resolutions for the coming year, I provide the following protocols for acceptable speech and for navigating the presentation or discussion of “touchy subjects” within Toastmasters.
“Touchy subjects” are topics many of us try to avoid at the holiday dinner table, such as politics and religion.
Toastmasters is a private membership organization, so we can and do impose rules for acceptable speech, and clubs can choose to impose rules that are specific to their club. Toastmasters International has only a few restrictions on content and prefers to focus on being respectful of your audience.
The only restriction on content is any speech that is overtly discriminatory, defamatory, malicious, insulting, harassing, threatening, or harmful to a person or group of people. That means we will not tolerate any speech or behavior that is discriminatory on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or physical ability. Bullying, badmouthing or intimidation of other members on social media or any other situation is strictly forbidden. See Toastmasters policies here.
If you choose to present a speech on a “touchy” or controversial subject, how you present your content can make all the difference. The following guidelines should keep you in good standing:
No surprises. Be up front about your content and your intentions. If your speech has the potential to be controversial, tell the audience up front and explain your reasons why you chose to pursue a controversial topic. The reasons for doing so should have to do with specific public speaking skills you are looking to develop. Your evaluator, and the audience, will let you know if you succeeded.
Being controversial just for the sake of it is not appropriate; nor is it appropriate to make frequent controversial comments or speeches. To paraphrase a leader of another club, “The purpose of Toastmasters is not necessarily to be a debating society, where we give fair and equal weight to every possible opinion. The purpose is to polish the techniques of public speaking.”
Sometimes an assignment may require or encourage you to take a position and defend it or to present something controversial but to do so in a way that encourages or enlightens others to consider different points of view. Be careful not to make general statements that you cannot support. If you are sharing an opinion, be ready to have your opinion questioned. If you are discussing a faith practice or political perspective –– especially someone else’s –– do your research before you give your speech. You need to have researched opposing points of view at least as much as, if not more, as your own.
Be respectful and know your audience. Respecting them means your main objectives should not be to offend or repel, cajole, convert, chide or chastise. You must have a clear, beneficial objective for your audience when speaking. If you’re going to challenge the beliefs of other people in the group, you need to figure out how to do that respectfully. Again, to quote a leader of another club, ”Do not look to exceed the limitations of your audience. The speech content is for your audience, that’s who you are delivering it to so give thoughtful consideration as to how you are benefitting your audience.”
At Essex Toastmasters we would like to keep our club open and not impose any new restrictions on speech content; to me that supports our club value of diversity. To keep the content open we need to maintain standards of civic dialogue. The Toastmasters journey will be better for the entire club if we remember to stick with the aforementioned rules for dealing with touchy subjects.