Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why Mentor?

I have dealt with this subject before, but it does bear repeating:

I am sure that we have all wondered about the appropriateness of telling someone to ‘do as I say’ and then setting a bad example for them.  This got me thinking about the concept of mentorship, especially as we apply it in Toastmasters.

A quick look at Wikipedia led me to discover the following, which I have adapted a bit:

In Greek mythology, Mentor was a friend of Odysseus (whom we also know as Ulysses) who was placed in charge of Odysseus’s, son Telemachus, and of his palace, when he left to fight in the Trojan War.

The goddess, Athena visited Telemachus taking on the disguise of Mentor.  As Mentor, she encouraged Telemachus to stand up against the suitors who were after his mother and to go abroad to find out what had happened to his father.

Because of Mentor's relationship with Telemachus, and Athena's encouragement and practical plans for dealing with personal dilemmas, the term Mentor has been adopted in English as meaning someone who imparts wisdom shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.


A further bit of surfing on the Net gave me the following, in terms of the purpose of mentoring:

"Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximize their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be."                             Eric Parsloe, The Oxford School of Coaching & Mentoring

Both the historical background to the word, mentor, and its purpose as defined above, tie in well with what Toastmasters had in mind when they developed the mentorship programme. It all starts with visitors to the club. They are potential members who should be encouraged by existing members to understand what is going on. Why are speeches timed? What is an Um and Ah counter? What is the purpose of Table Topics?

It all seems easy once you have been part of Toastmasters for a while, but for someone who has decided to join up there are still so many things to learn. The CC and CL manuals are given to members when they start, but working their way through them needs explanation. Then there are the various meeting duties which they might be expected to perform. They might even be asked to stand for a position on the club executive. It’s all very daunting and I know that more than one member has been lost to a club where mentoring was not taken seriously. In fact, from having chatted to one or two new members, I found that they had been assigned mentors when they joined, but didn’t really know what to do with that knowledge, as the mentor assigned to them had not once bothered to make contact with them.

You might be asking,” who really benefits from a mentoring relationship?” The answer is simple – everyone.

New members benefit by:

·         Understanding the club programme format and its customs

·         Developing confidence as they participate in club activities and work on their CL manuals

·         Learning speaking skills to advance through their CC manuals

Older members can also benefit by:

·         Refining their skills

·         Mentoring in specialized areas

Mentors benefit by:

·         Keeping their skills honed

·         Earning the respect of their mentees

·         Learning skills from those they mentor

The club benefits by:

·         Having happy members

·         Retaining members – and growing the club

It sounds like a good idea all round! 

However, to coin a clich├ęd phrase, ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’.  Club executives cannot think that they have done their duties once they have assigned mentors to each new member. There has to be follow-up to see whether the relationship is working.  Then, with regard to the parties in the mentoring pair: whose responsibility is it to keep in touch? Initially, it makes sense for the mentor to establish contact and to ‘befriend’ the mentee. Thereafter, the mentee should have the freedom to pose questions to the mentor or to ask for help with the development and presentation of speeches, or with the roles that they have to play in club meetings. If the mentee does not seek help, the mentor should periodically enquire whether there is any area where he/she can render assistance.

I like the biological term ‘symbiotic relationship’, which in essence means a relationship between two entities which is mutually beneficial for the participants. It’s a win-win situation as long as each party does what is expected of him.
When it comes to a mentoring programme at club level, everyone involved stands to benefit. If our purpose is to ensure happy members who are growing as speakers and in self-confidence, this will ensure continued club growth – which, in turn will lead to the broader goals of Toastmasters being met. 

We just can’t lose.  So, let’s give it a real try, shall we?
Until next time
Ricky Woods

Saturday, August 17, 2013

I think I can

Do you remember the little engine that could?  He worked in a railway yard shunting small stock about. One day an enormous train asked one of the big engines to pull it over the hill and down the other side, but it refused saying that it would be far too difficult. It was met with the same excuses by all the other engines until; in desperation it approached the little engine. 

“I think I can,” the little engine responded as it hitched itself to the train. Then, pulling very hard, it kept saying, ”I think I can; I think I can: I - think – I – can” as it pulled the train slowly to the top of the hill and then, in excitement, “I thought I could; I thought I could….!” speeding up over the other side.

Obviously, there is a wonderful lesson for us to learn from the determination of the little engine that did not see the enormity of pulling the train as an impossible task, but rather allowed his fortitude and strength of mind to view the task as one that was difficult but still possible.

However, in recounting the way this story was told to me when I was a child, I thought that it was a wonderful example of how vocal variety adds meaning to a speech when it is used effectively. For any speaker to use your voice to best effect, you must find a balance between the extremes of the following elements: Volume, Pitch, Rate and Quality. Allow me to elaborate:

Volume: Clearly, the size of the venue where you are speaking is a determining factor in how loudly you should speak. There is nothing more irritating than not being able to hear a speaker (although good use of stage whispers can be most effective). However, meaning can be determined or changed through placing emphasis on different words in a sentence. Look at the following statement, for example:

Her grandmother died yesterday.  By changing the emphasis so that it falls on a different word each time you say the sentence, the intended meaning can be vastly changed.

Pitch: This refers to how high or low a sound is.  Our voices, just like musical instruments, vary in pitch. Shrill, high-pitched sounds can be irritating, while warm, low tones instil confidence in an audience. A case in point: Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister of England, went for vocal coaching to lower the pitch of her voice. (Small wonder then that she became known as the Iron Lady!) Effective speakers adapt the pitch of their voices to the material in their speeches.  Look at the sentence above again and gauge the different emotional content that can be conveyed by changing the pitch of your voice when you say it.

Rate refers to the number of words you say in a minute. This will have a definite effect on how your audience responds to you. Too fast means they can’t keep up with you and too slow means they will lose interest in what you have to say. The most effective speaking rate is approximately 120 – 150 words per minute, which is fast enough to remain interesting while still allowing your audience to digest what you have to say.  Remember the little engine? It is vital to slow down vocally to show him struggling up the hill and just as important to speed up when he speeds down the other side.

Finally, we come to quality. A good speaking voice is pleasant and sounds friendly; it is natural, conveying sincerity; forceful – which means strong and vital, rather than loud; and it can be heard, because the speaker enunciates properly and controls his breathing.  If you listen to yourself on tape and hear a voice that is thin, breathy or nasal, you should work on your breathing and try some relaxation techniques to eliminate the tension in your voice.

Silence and pause are vital aspects of a good speech. It is not necessary that every moment be filled with sound. Judicious use of pause or silence can be used to draw attention to specific points, or to lay emphasis on them. You also sound far more intelligent if you use pause instead of an ‘um’ or an ‘ah’ when you hesitate!

Rehearsal is paramount, of course. Once you have written your speech; record it. Then work with it by adding notes for yourself on how to add value by varying the volume, pitch, rate and quality until you are conveying the exact meaning to your audience that you intended.
Soon, like the little engine, you might also be heard saying excitedly, ”I thought I could; I thought I could!”

Until next time
Ricky Woods