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Make Your Club a Safe Zone

by Matthew Arnold Stern

The following is a letter to the editor that was published in the February, 2001 Toastmaster magazine. I was responding to an article by Jim Carmickle who said that when club members cannot speak about controversial subjects such as politics and religion, that their speeches lack diversity and conviction.

There was a time that I would have agreed with him. In fact, I gave a number of controversial speeches, and I even encouraged people to take on controversial subjects. 

What changed my mind is when I came to Best Software Toastmasters, which does not allow controversial speeches. I saw that members can give diverse, powerful, and inspiring speeches without resorting to controversy. As I reflected on my experiences with other clubs, I saw the divisiveness that can take place when members feel obligated to get on their soapbox. When a person feels passionately about an issue, it's hard for them to compromise and express themselves inclusively. This is especially true for people who hold certain political and religious values as the core of their being. Friction inevitably takes place when someone takes a hard line and others stiffen their position in response to it.  

The goal of a Toastmasters club is to provide a safe and mutually supportive learning environment where people can gain the confidence to communicate and lead effectively. We need to remove any obstacles that prevent us from that goal. 

A club that limits controversial speeches isn't hurting those members with strong convictions. In fact, such a club encourages those members to grow by forcing them to talk about other subjects and develop different speaking techniques. This enables those speakers to become more effective when they share their convictions outside of their club. 

I still believe that there is a place for people to stand up and proclaim their views, and it's important for people to do so. However, a Toastmasters club doesn't need to be one of them. A Toastmasters club should be a safe, peaceful retreat where speakers can sharpen their skills so that they can battle for their convictions in the larger world.

Now, the letter:

*    *    *

I wholeheartedly agree with Jim Carmickle ("Make Your Club a Safe Zone," October, 2000) that Toastmasters clubs need to be safe places for people to express themselves. I strongly disagree that restricting speakers from certain subjects causes clubs to suffer "because the presentations lack richness, diversity and conviction."

We are a corporate club, and our management restricts us from speaking about controversial subjects such as politics and religion. Our management is concerned that such subjects can cause discord in the club that can spill into the workplace. This is a legitimate concern: I've known of clubs where a steady diet of political and religious speeches resulted in division and hostility among members and caused them to leave. Such clubs don't understand that they need to be safe places for audiences to listen as well as for speakers to speak.

At our club, we all understand the limitation against controversial speeches, and we generally accept it. We periodically give reminders about the rule and the benefits of it. When someone does break the rule, which has happened only once in the year that I've been with the club, we gently correct the speaker in our evaluation. As a result, we've had a wide range of original, eloquent, heartfelt, inspirational, and stimulating speeches without having to resort to controversy. 

Setting limits on topics doesn't hamper expression or make a club a less safe place for people to express themselves. In fact, people feel more comfortable getting up and speaking when they don't feel obligated to get up on a soap box or defend their deepest views. When a Toastmasters club is a safe place for both the speaker and the listeners, communication can truly take place. Isn't communication part of our goal in Toastmasters?

Matthew Stern, ATM-S, CL 
Best Software Toastmasters (4637-F),
Irvine, California, USA

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