Toastmasters vs. Speaking Circles – what are their strengths?

strength - presenter lifting weightsOdds are, you want to improve your public speaking – no matter what your skill level is. Happily you’ve several options, one of the best-known being Toastmasters. (If it’s new to you, you can watch how Toastmasters meetings work in a professional video.)

A second option is Speaking Circles, first founded in the US by Lee Glickstein. You can read chapter 1 of Lee’s book Be Heard Now! online. I thought the chapter was extremely intriguing and appealing, so in this post I’ll highlight the key differences between the Toastmasters and Speaking Circles approaches.

To give you some context, both Toastmasters and Speaking Circles are run as regular group meetings, where members each take turns speaking to the group for around 5 minutes. Because fear of public speaking is rife, tackling nerves is one of the main goals of both organisations.

The most striking differences between Toastmasters and Speaking Circles are:

Trait Toastmasters Speaking Circles
Ease of access There are 13,500 clubs in 116 countries (so for instance, I could choose from about 10 clubs in suburbs near me in Sydney) – proximity worldwide is one of Toastmasters’ great strengths There seem to be only dozens of Speaking Circles globally, mainly in the US (so for instance, there are just 4 facilitators in the whole Asia-Pacific region – 3 in Japan and 1 in New Zealand)
Attitude to silence Silence is used only in pauses, as one aspect of an effective speech (For more on that, see Pause for impact) Silence is embraced so much that participants aren’t even called “speakers” – despite the organisation’s name. I find this an alluring attitude to silence, because the world’s awash with worthless words already!
(For ways to avoid using worthless words yourself (beyond being silent!) see Use questions or issues for structure, which deals with the macro scale, and Choose shorter words and phrases, for the micro scale.)
Speech feedback or evaluations Receiving constructive criticism is seen as an essential part of every speech Feedback to the speaker focuses solely on appreciation
Leadership development Practising leadership skills is a key goal (for interested members), and the Toastmasters slogan is “Where leaders are made” The focus is on building confidence in front of a group
Group size Toastmasters clubs can get quite big, so although it’s traditional for everyone to say at least a few words at each meeting, in the larger clubs there’ll be less opportunities for 5-minute speeches Speaking Circles are limited to 10 people

So those are the key differences, and (to me) the greatest strengths of both approaches. Now, it’s over to you…

Have your say

To you, what are the greatest strengths of Toastmasters, or of Speaking Circles? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below or via @RemotePoss on Twitter.

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6 thoughts on “Toastmasters vs. Speaking Circles – what are their strengths?

  1. I’ve not been involved in Speaking Circles and only in Toastmasters for about six months. I think the greatest thing about Toastmasters is something a lot of people don’t take advantage of: in-depth mentoring. Those who do mostly use it only on a very limited, first-few-speeches basis.

    Though I have spoken hundreds of times in public and am preparing for my TM speech #10, I have just started with a mentor who can really give me solid, in-depth criticism and who is coaching me to that “next level.” I think part of the reason for this is that clubs don’t have good solid mentoring programs and make them clearly understood by the members. Frankly, I want more criticism, not less.

    The only other real negative I know about Toastmasters is that some of the advice is kind of, let’s say, Toastmaster-y. I recently heard advice to a new speaker not to end his speeches with “Thank you”, but simply to hand it back to the Toastmaster with “Madame Toastmaster.” Maybe this might be applicable (I told him later) to speaking at a roast, but few other places outside Toastmasters itself. If you appreciate your audience, I see no harm in saying thank you.


    • Great to hear your perspective and experiences!

      In my TM club, we’ve lots of fairly recent members, and few mentors. Perhaps that’s common, in which case a buddy system might work, so people can at least practise speaking in front of someone.

      I shudder at the term “in-depth criticism”, as in my experience a few Toastmasters think they’re helping by freely giving negative feedback.

      I took part in our area’s evaluation contest 6 months ago, and some of the other contestants were quite harsh (I’m told). I saw just one contestant and he gave balanced feedback, like I did. In fact he won, and I came 2nd, so perhaps the others will be more helpful to the speaker next time!

      To be useful, feedback quality is key. In fact blogger Olivia Mitchell even suggested, for regular meetings: “Ignore your assigned evaluator (most of the time)”. (In the same great post, she also advises getting a mentor, just as you have.)

      In your last point, I fully agree about TM-style advice. It’s worth asking why Toastmasters tend to say we shouldn’t thank the audience, and I believe the answers aren’t valid. (I might have enough material on that for a whole new blog post!)


  2. Hi,
    I’ve been involved in both organizations, as a participant and as a leader. With Toastmasters I could work on writing a speech on a certain topic and practice delivering it according to the techniques that were suggested, such as vocal variety and gestures.

    In Speaking Circles I felt much more permission and support for finding the power of my own presence. With less focus on “presenting” words, I could feel a deep confidence begin to build. I wasn’t performing, I was developing the ability to stay connected to myself and to the listeners.

    Speaking Circles does offer a leadership course, Leadership Presence: How to Inspire Groups to Action, where participants learn how to be fully and authentically present when they take on leadership roles.


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