When John Bowe learned that his reclusive cousin, who had lived for decades in his parents’ basement, had moved out and gotten married at the age of fifty-nine, John was extremely surprised. What made him equally surprised was how his cousin had finally launched his life. It hadn’t been meds or therapy. Instead, he had joined his local Toastmasters club.
Duly intrigued, John set off on his own Toastmasters journey, as he details in his book I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection. Today on the show, John shares how he discovered that the ethos of this nonprofit organization parallels the tradition of rhetoric espoused by the ancient Greeks, especially by Aristotle, and why the ability to speak, whether in the context of giving a formal speech or simply having a conversation, continues to be such an essential skill in the modern age. In my favorite part of the show, we discuss how our ideas of authentic speech can actually get in the way of expressing our authentic selves. We then turn to the techniques for better speaking that John learned from joining Toastmasters and how Toastmasters ultimately transformed his own life.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Toastmasters International
- AoM Podcast #698: The Secrets of Public Speaking From History’s Greatest Orators
- AoM Article: An Introduction to Public Speaking
- AoM Podcast #639: Why You Should Learn the Lost Art of Rhetoric
- AoM series on classical rhetoric
- Rhetoric by Aristotle
- The Fall of Public Man by Richard Sennett
- AoM series on overcoming shyness
- AoM Article: How to Minimize Your Uh’s and Um’s
- Sunday Firesides: Want to Solve Your Social Problems? Get Over Your Self
- “How to Speak in Public” — article in Psyche magazine by John
Connect With John Bowe
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When John Bowe learned that his reclusive cousin who had lived for decades in his parents’ basement had moved out and gotten married at the age of 59, John was extremely surprised. What made him equally surprised was how his cousin had finally launched his life. It hadn’t been meds or therapy. Instead, he had joined his local Toastmasters club. Duly intrigued, John set off on his own Toastmasters journey as he details in his book, I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection. Today in the show, John Shares how he discovered that the ethos of this nonprofit organization parallels the tradition of rhetoric espoused by the ancient Greeks, especially by Aristotle. And why the ability to speak whether in the context of giving a formal speech or simply having a conversation continues to be such an essential skill in the modern age. In my favorite part of the show, we discuss how our ideas of authentic speech can actually get in the way of expressing our authentic selves. We then turn into techniques for better speaking that John learned from joining Toastmasters and how Toastmasters ultimately transformed his own life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/toastmasters.
All right, John Bowe, welcome to the show.
John Bowe: Thanks, Brett. I’m very, very excited to be here.
Brett McKay: So you wrote a book called, I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection. And this book is part memoir, part experiential journalism, and also just showing research about public speaking and specifically how Toastmasters teaches the art of public speaking. And you went through the whole process there. I’m curious, what led you to joining a Toastmasters group and doing a deep dive into the art of public speaking?
John Bowe: I should preface anything I would say by saying that my whole life I hated public speaking. I hated the idea of anyone learning to do public speaking or anyone teaching me to do public speaking. I just thought it was the most artificial or phony or stinted kind of thing you could do. So what led me to discover the subject or find a different way into it was a total accident. In about 2009, I was doing a oral history about love and I interviewed a step-cousin of mine who was a recluse in rural Iowa and he had lived in his parents’ basement until he was 59 and then he got married. And so everyone in my family would kind of snidely gossip about him and wonder what in the world had happened. So when I became a journalist and I was doing this oral history, I asked him, dude, how did you go from being a guy who plays with a model train set in your basement to someone who could be married? And I just assumed that he had gone to therapy or seen a shrink or gotten on meds or something, something psychiatric. And instead, he said, I joined the Toastmasters Club. I was told they’re a very nice place to meet people. And somehow he had joined Toastmasters and he wasn’t even a great Toastmaster. He gave six speeches or something. And he somehow was transformed enough by that experience to then begin talking to women or the woman who would eventually become his wife.
And I just thought this guy converted from being totally offline, socially, to get back into the mainstream of public life, of social life without psychiatric intervention, without psychiatric methods. And it was purely this act of joining a civic group and learning to speak that performed this miracle. So I was really intrigued. I started thinking about his experience and Toastmasters and I started researching Toastmasters here and there. And I started realizing, oh, they have this whole way of teaching people to speak and this is a thing. And it goes back to this Greek invention of speech training. And I started becoming intrigued by the fact that the Greeks invented speech training about 10 minutes after they invented democracy. And it tied into all these things that I was really concerned about. Like, you know, the partisan war going on in America in general, alienation, people being very disconnected socially these days and people being very divided. And all these trends like civic engagement declining, people’s trust in public institutions declining. So I had this aha moment where I realized, God, if you could tie all of these things together, it’s almost all connected to our lack of speech training. Because when you learn how to speak, you learn how to connect with people. And if you don’t learn how to speak, you kind of by default get disconnected from people.
Brett McKay: No, so that’s interesting. I wanna talk more about the consequences of us not teaching public speaking or rhetoric. But before we do, let’s talk about Toastmasters in general. I think a lot of people have probably heard of Toastmasters, maybe they had a friend talk about Toastmasters. What is the history of Toastmasters? Who formed it? Why did they form it? And what’s the state of the organization today?
John Bowe: Toastmasters was founded in 1924 by a guy named Ralph C. Smedley, who was a director at the YMCA, director of adult education programs. And in the 1920s you were seeing this huge migration of farm people, rural people moving into cities because farm work was becoming mechanized. So at one time, something like 80% of Americans were employed doing farm work or related work, suddenly all of those jobs went away. So these people who lived in small communities where people knew each other by reputation, suddenly had to move to cities and have meetings in big, large growing companies and corporations. And most of them sucked at it and were terrified by it. So this Smedley guy realized what a big favor he could do to help people learn how to do it because it was stunting their personal life and their work life. And he played at it a couple times with versions of it that didn’t work before he came up with the iteration that finally became Toastmasters. But he envisioned it as a laboratory of free speech where people could come and bring anything that they needed to work on in their work life or private life, wedding speeches, funeral speeches, and stuff, and run them by their fellow citizens. So it was from the very beginning a nonprofit club where people could kind of go at their own speed. And he really emphasized this learn-by-doing approach.
It’s not highly theoretical, there’s not a ton of reading, you just keep doing it and practicing these isolated technical components of speech, and then you get evaluated by your fellows.
Brett McKay: Oh, and then what’s the state of the organization today? I imagined it was probably really big middle of the 20th century. Has membership declined or has it held pretty steady?
John Bowe: Well, membership worldwide is bigger than it’s ever been. The club grew in popularity. I’m not sure if it peaked or what’s going on with US membership, I think it’s doing okay after a dip. But globally, there are more members than there have ever been. There are clubs in most countries around the world.
Brett McKay: And again it’s a nonprofit and it’s pretty, they meet in… You guys met in a grocery store, lobby area. They meet in libraries. It’s like Salt of the Earth Civic, from the ground up type of organization.
John Bowe: I wrote and I wrote, and I had to take so much of it out of the book, but I was fascinated by the spaces where Toastmasters meet. Because if you think about American life, everything’s become so privatized and there’s this whole underground network of spaces that are public or quasi-public where clubs like this are still meeting and there’s still this kind of world going on that’s very uncool and it’s not featured in the media. But we met in the community room of the Byerlys Grocery store in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. And there are community rooms like this all over the country. And I’ve seen other Toastmasters chapters meeting on Air Force bases and Chamber of Commerce offices, places like that that you kind of never think of.
Brett McKay: Yes, this is a very… Like a Thuốc Valian democratic self-improvement society. The officers aren’t getting paid to do this. They just, everyone just shows up. ‘Cause they really believe in this idea of helping people improve their public speaking. And you talk about how it seems like what the Toastmasters are doing is they are carrying on the legacy of rhetoric or rhetorical education that the ancient Greeks and Romans used. And you talk about how the Greeks pretty much-invented rhetoric shortly after they invented democracy because rhetoric was what allowed you to participate in democracy. It’s not like our sort of democracy where we just go vote. And that’s pretty much it. Democracy in Athens was very… If you’re gonna participate, you had to get up there and talk and speech and persuade. What was the rhetorical education like in ancient Greece and Rome? And then maybe we could talk about why did we stop teaching that systematically in the West?
John Bowe: So after they invented democracy, it immediately became necessary for the people who were citizens to speak in public. So before the invention of democracy, it was illegal, it was prohibited activity and suddenly it became required activity for a lot of people. And even when you weren’t required to do it, you still kind of had to do it because if you were bad at it, people thought you were uncool and lame and didn’t wanna do business with you and didn’t wanna marry you. And so really you had to go to these forums and talk about should we invade Sparta or not? And if you were lame at it, like that was it, no one took you seriously. Another thing that happened with the invention of democracy were trials. The invention of a trial by a jury of your peers. And back then trials were like gladiatorial matches. And there was no procedural process really. You could accuse anybody of anything. And then suddenly you’d have to go to court and there would be anywhere from 200-1500 plebs and they’d be drunk and eating and laughing and cheering. And so you and your accuser would just sort of battle it out verbally. And again, if you lost or if you were bad at public speaking, which most people were just like now, you could lose your house and your flock of sheep and whatever property you had.
And so in the middle of all that, this lawyer in Sicily wrote a short manual teaching people how to conduct themselves during trials. And it was just this basic thing saying, here’s where you stand. Here’s when you shut up. Here’s how you should present your case. And in a weird way, it was really the first time anybody had ever stepped back from the daily act of speaking and apply theory to it and apply rules to it and realize, oh, when you look at people when you talk, they believe you more than if you don’t. Or if you break your jokes or your stories into three parts, somehow they make more sense than if you don’t. Why is that? What are the rules for good speech? What are the things about speech that make it not work? And so suddenly it was like splitting the atom open or something, this thing that no one had ever thought about suddenly became this source of incredible power. And schools spread it up all over Athens with philosophers and teachers rushing in to teach different angles of speech. Like how to do introductions or just logical ways to defend yourself in an argument. There are like eight or 12 different paths you can take or something. People exploited stuff like verb tense. And there are these crazy little language hacks that you could take advantage of. And most of us know some of it, but we’ve never been taught all of it and we’ve never been taught… Just rigorously drilled at it.
So very quickly it became the most popular subject. Everyone realized that in a world of democracy, talking is the main weapon we use every day in everyday life to get ahead and to get influence. And so in the end, it wasn’t called communication or public speaking, it was called rhetoric. And the definition of rhetoric was the study of all available means of persuasion. And so at some point there are dozens or hundreds of different schools in Athens and Aristotle comes along and in a typical Aristotelian way writes the one book, the one comprehensive systematic analysis of rhetoric. And he’s just… Aristotle is insane. Just everything he does like this is it. This is the one way that you can see this issue. And he said, this is what rhetoric is, this is what it’s useful for, this is why you need to know it. And he kind of carved out these rules and theories of what it is. And ever since then, those were the basis, those were the core of all Western education for about 1800 years, 2000 years. But from the beginning of rhetoric, there were people who said, why do we need to learn this? This is kind of like the art of bullshit. This is like the art of spinning the truth. Why should anyone who speaks the truth need to spin it?
And Plato, for example, wrote two treaties against rhetoric saying, this is a false art, this is a black art. And Aristotle had been Plato’s student, and Aristotle was the one who really refuted that and said, look, in a world of crazy people and in a world where people are really irrational and don’t pay attention to facts, you need to learn how to deal with that. You need to learn how to be persuasive so that the good ideas can sort of rise like cream to the top. And he said something very daunting, very challenging. Aristotle said that ideas that are true and ideas that are good should be easier to prove than their opposites. So if people who have the bad ideas or people who are lying win and they prevail against the first group of people, then the first group of people have only themselves to blame. They should have learned how to present their case better. And so if you think about anyone who ever worked in an office environment where the loud person or the interrupter or the charismatic person always wins out over the smart person, you think about that and you think, well, smart person, you’re supposed to learn how to be more persuasive. It’s on you. Anyway. So this argument about whether rhetoric is good or not persisted really throughout its entire life. And while it was hugely important for people to learn, it always had its detractors.
And about two or 300 years ago, there were a series of things that kind of chipped away at it. And I would say that number one was science and the scientific approach to everything where we started prioritizing what I call hard knowledge or hard skills over rhetoric, which is sort of the mother of all soft skills.
Brett McKay: And then, yeah, you could see throughout the renaissance, rhetoric was an important part of a man’s education. But even you saw rhetoric as part of a college curriculum when you became a freshman. You had to take rhetoric at a lot of the colleges up until about the early part of the 19th century. And then you saw it kind of go away. We stopped doing that. And you make the case that not only is this making us just bad at public speaking and people will be like, well, who cares if I’m bad at public speaking? If I sit at a computer and just type in data in a spreadsheet, why do I be good at public speaking? But one of the bigger cases you’re making in this book, and you alluded to it earlier, is that you think that our lack of rhetorical education, the education, how to speak publicly with others could be one of the causes of the disconnect we’re seeing in our culture, not only with the political rancor but also just people feeling lonely, alienated, just all that stuff you hear about in news articles all the time. You think maybe the lack of public speaking education is contributing to that. How so?
John Bowe: I grew up with zero, zero sense that public speaking is a thing. And so as I grew older and got weirder and more, not introverted, but just, I read a lot. I read a lot of religious books and philosophy books and stuff like that, and I felt like I couldn’t connect with anyone. And those ideas for me were just sort of private. I guess I got this idea as I grew older that these ideas were inexpressible and people are too dumb to understand me. Or the flip side of that is I’m too dumb to express myself. And I just grew up kind of thinking, well that’s normal. That’s how life is. And if I had had this training, I would’ve learned, oh, you can express anything, you just have to do the work. There’s a skillset here. And even though I’m a writer and I learned how to put that stuff into writing, I had a huge divide between what I could write and what I could say.
And I think without wanting to stretch that too far, I think most people grow up thinking, I can’t express myself. No one’s listening. If I bump into the slightest bit of conflict, it’s gonna be horrible. It’s gonna blow up and turn into this big drama. And what the Greeks really intended was to prepare students for the fact that life is combat. Life is the Hunger Games. And it says verbal hunger games going on in your family and at work and in the public square. And that’s good. That’s a good thing. So it’s like free market capitalism, if you like the ideas behind that. Or you believe that the market always kind of goes the right way or something in the end. If you like this idea of… The same thing on ideas. The ideas that are best will eventually prevail as long as everyone is endowed with the skill to be able to articulate them. And so, Aristotle articulated this thing. He said this skill of rhetoric is the basis of civilization. It’s the basis of our homes, it’s the basis of our town square. This one thing is in the middle of everything. It’s the quintessential human skill. It’s what makes culture and morality and everything else. The law, politics, everything flows from this ability to argue.
And he sort of saw human existence as this ongoing argument, “Hey, look at me. Hey, what about my way? Oh, you like your way better? Oh well, what’s fair? Let’s figure it out.” And so if you can’t participate in that, you’re kind of cut off line from the central activity of being human. And I’ve seen these really cool analogs to it. I was reading this thing by Hannah Arendt in a book called The Human Condition, and she talks about how in Latin, for example, to die, the verb to die meant to die socially, to leave the company of humans. It wasn’t that your own individual physical body dying. It was you leave the game, you leave the race of everybody jostling and fighting and arguing and having fun doing it. And so I think, really, all of these things come together with speech education. If you have kids growing up and staring at their screens, but they’re too timid or unskilled to connect with their peers and have arguments about anything without freaking out, where do they go from there?
Brett McKay: No, and I think another thing as you were talking that may have contributed… I thought of this as you were talking, that may have contributed to the chipping away of public speaking education and particularly in America, is we have this idea of authenticity, right? And whatever’s inside of you, that’s the real you. And if you have to practice at it and think about it, then that’s not authentic. But there’s been thinkers that you quote. There’s one Richard Sennett, he wrote The Fall of public man. He makes this intriguing case that no, actually this idea of authenticity, it’s actually preventing us from being our real selves. Because you have this idea, well, if I don’t have to think about how to present my ideas inside of me, then you’re never able to do so. And as a consequence, you can’t become who you wanna be and you can’t connect with others.
John Bowe: I think this is very shallow unexamined sense of what authenticity means. I know for me, I just thought if I was ever nervous or something made me feel awkward, that meant that I wasn’t supposed to do it. So if it made me feel awkward to go do a book tour and talk about a book that I had worked on for years, that meant that public speaking was stupid. I never could turn it around and look at myself and ask the question, well, wait a minute, this is your authentic self. You spent years working on this book about slavery or about this or that because I was really passionate about my subjects. So for me to not be able to speak well about the things I care about is actually much more inauthentic than me feeling stupid or awkward about learning to make my points better. And I think you see that all around in different areas. I just think if you have everybody trapped inside their minds and they’re unable to speak up, they’re unable to have conflict. That can’t be said to be some big vision of authenticity. I think authenticity means that people are really skilled at articulating their position in a public way for others to criticize and others to moderate. And I think there was this huge argument also from the beginnings of rhetoric in the Greeks. Does learning rhetoric, learning to practice rhetoric, make you a better person or not?
And there was this one famous rhetorician, more famous at the time than Aristotle, name is Socrates. And he said, learning to speak in public will basically make you a better person and improve your sense of discernment and judgment. And I think that’s fascinating. It’s not always true, but I think the point is, if you learn to get your points of view out into the world, then people will tell you, “Hey, that’s crazy.” Or “Hey, I like what you’re saying, but that one part of it is crazy.” So people can push back on you. And by not being locked inside your own private little world chuckling to yourself about how authentic and great you are, you have to put yourself out there and people will push back and tell you when you’re being wrong or stupid. And so you grow and you actually get more authentic in a kind of a group way by partaking in that process.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think people, when they think authentic communication, what they end up doing is they just throw the firebombs “Hey, here’s this thing, here’s real talk.” And they just say something that they didn’t even really think about it. They just said the first thing on their mind and it just blows up. And it’s not good communication. And I imagine if they would’ve thought about things more, it would’ve been more effective. But we have this idea, well, authentic communication has to be just whatever I think off the top of my head. And that’s whatever my emotions say, I’m just gonna say that. And Aristotle and these ancient Greeks and even the Toastmasters would say no, that’s not authentic communication. We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay. So learning the art of public speaking not only will help you in your job, I think most people when they think about improving their public speaking, they’re thinking about how it can improve their lives professionally. They have to give a pitch or speech or something like that. But you’re saying no, it actually carries over just to your day-to-day everyday conversations. It allows you to connect better with other people, communicate better with other people. So let’s dig into this Toastmasters process, how they’re teaching the art of Rhetoric in the 20th and 21st centuries.
You mentioned that active participation is an important part of the Toastmasters experience. You have to actually get up and… They don’t force you to do this, but they highly encourage you to get up and give speeches to get better. So tell us about your first time. You show up at this grocery store community room. What was your first experience like giving a speech in front of these Toastmasters?
John Bowe: I have to say, I was more terrified to give my first Toastmaster speech than any other public speaking occasion in my life. I was once on The Daily Show with John Stewart, and that was pretty terrifying. But this Toastmaster speech at the community room, at the Byerlys Grocery Store in St. Louis Park, Minnesota was probably about three times more terrifying. And it’s precisely because I was studying my own inability to connect with other people. And I had signed up to write this book about it, and I was really bummed that I had to go to Toastmasters and I knew I had to go through it. But every other time I’d spoken in public, I just kind of erected all of my defensive barriers and I kind of cruised through it with clenched fists and I would use humor and I don’t know what else I used to get through it, but here I was supposed to make a much more earnest undefended attempt and I sucked at it. I completely whiffed. I was so far off and I didn’t know why. I just felt like I was walking on a floor covered with marbles or something. They’re the most forgiving, welcoming environment you could ever imagine in the world. And so it wasn’t them, it was just me overthinking everything to death and also trying to write about it at the same time and look at myself and monitor myself while I was going through this process.
But I guess what I did wrong, I was trying to be cool in my first speech. The instructions for the first speech were just to try to connect with your fellow group members. And without knowing it, I was trying to impress them or show them how weird and original I was. And that’s a very different purpose than trying to connect with people or trying to share with people. And so just from the get-go, I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong way without knowing it, and it was excruciating. I came home from that feeling like I’d just been physically beaten up three times.
Brett McKay: And what was your feedback like? So after every Toastmaster’s speech, there’s a period of feedback. So what was the feedback like on your first speech? And as you said, these people, it’s like the most forgiving place you can be, but I imagine some of it stung. So what was that process like?
John Bowe: I can’t remember the feedback so much. I know there was kind of a very polite sort of like, “Hey dude, good try. That first one’s hard for all of us.” [laughter] They’re not gonna say like, “Whoa, you have obvious psychological problems that were on full reveal.” I think for the first speech, they don’t give you a lot of technical advice, but after that, it starts to get pretty technical, which is super helpful and really changes the way that you think about speech. But for that first one, you’re just kind of winging it and you just gotta get it over with. You gotta get it out of the way.
Brett McKay: And it seemed like the first thing you struggled to overcome with your learning the art of rhetoric at Toastmasters was you call this morbid self-consciousness you had, right?
John Bowe: Yes.
Brett McKay: Just thinking about yourself and how you looked and how can I be cool and how can I be original? And what Toastmasters does, it hammers into you to the point. This goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, is when you are formulating a speech, when you’re trying to speak to somebody, instead of thinking about yourself, you should always be thinking about your audience. So how did that experience, the first time you gave a speech in Toastmasters, how did it help you start thinking less about yourself and more about your audience?
John Bowe: I didn’t realize this ’till later on, and I didn’t quite realize this only through Toastmasters. I also got it by reading Aristotle’s book about rhetoric 15 times. And in that book, he said something, the audience is the beginning and the end of public speaking. And the first time you hear that, it sounds like an observation and you just shrug and be like, okay, that makes sense. But what I didn’t realize is all those things in public speaking training that you come across that say you need to think about the audience, they really mean, you need to think about the audience. And so me typically, and I think most people when we go into a presentation, we’re thinking, oh my God, people are gonna think I’m nuts. People are gonna know that I’m an idiot, whatever, I’m not ready for this. Okay, then I’m gonna stop thinking about myself and think about my material. I’ve gotta lay out these 15 slides and these 15 charts and graphs and whatever. And so Aristotle’s thing, and really most speech training, what they really want you to do is think about where people are gonna be sitting. How old are they? What time of the day is it? How much do they know about you or your subject? And so just from the beginning, you can bypass all this crap about yourself and your material and focus on them. That’s why they call it public speaking.
And it’s really all about just getting rid of the 90% of your thoughts or whatever percent that aren’t about them. And just thinking, how can I help them? How can I deliver the information they need to hear and wanna hear instead of getting lost in all of this stuff about my anxiety and blah, blah, blah, my millions of facts and data points.
Brett McKay: And then what’s also interesting is that not only will that help you overcome a lot of the stage fright, a lot of times if you just start… Shift the focus to the audience instead of thinking about yourself, it’ll help you get over maybe some of that stage fright that a lot of people have about public speaking. But this idea of just thinking about your audience, this carries over to day-to-day conversation. A lot of people who are shy, we actually did a whole series about shyness. A lot of shyness is caused by this extreme self-consciousness. And the solution that if you go to a therapist, I’m really shy, they’ll say, well, don’t think about yourself so much. It’s like, think about the other person, ask questions about them, and be interested in them and that will help you overcome your shyness. And the same thing happens in public speaking.
John Bowe: The simplicity of this Aristotelian command to think about the audience first is it’s really literal. Anyone can do it. So who am I talking to? I’m talking to a 37-year-old Egyptian, blah, blah, blah PhD from Montana. Whatever. It’s not like you have to conjure up some kind of fake warmth or fake charisma. You really just start with this physical questioning of who am I talking to? Why are they here, how can I help them? What do they want? How can I explain my points in a way that fits into their kind of cognitive universe or lexicon? And I think that for me is the big breakthrough. I don’t even know if that’s what Aristotle intended when he said his thing about the audience, but that was what I got when I combined Toastmaster’s approach and Aristotle’s approach. And for me, that was really the thing that allowed me to stop being so anxious. It’s just realizing I don’t have to do anything clever here. I don’t have to be some magically non-anxious person. I just have to think, who are these people? Where are they sitting? How can I help them?
Brett McKay: And this whole audience, first, this is gonna pretty much shape everything you do and how you organize your speech, how you present yourself, the words you use. We’re gonna talk about that. So that’s a nice segue, this idea of organizing your speech. And one of the exercises that Toastmasters has you work on is creating a speech and organizing it in such a way that you get to the point as quickly as you can and then make sure it’s clearly understandable what your main point is. Was this hard for you to figure out when you first started doing this?
John Bowe: That one was the… The first Toastmaster speech was just this general kind of do whatever you want, introduce yourself, and try to connect with your crowd, right? The second one was about organization. How do you organize a speech? And they just wanted to get across the idea that you can’t just go up there and go blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. From the beginning to the end. It’s much, much better if you say, today I’m gonna talk about blah, blah, blah. I’m gonna talk about it in three parts. And they had this kind of schema, a set of schema you could use. So you could say, today I’m gonna talk about travel and I’m gonna give examples in Spain, Italy, and Russia. Or you could say, today I’m gonna talk about travel, I’m gonna talk about travel for young people, travel for middle-aged people, travel for old people. They just gave you these different schema like problem, solution, cause, and effect. And the point was, at the beginning of a speech, you need to give your audience a roadmap for where you’re gonna go. And then you follow the roadmap. Now let me kind of combine that teaching with the next Toastmasters exercise that I did, ’cause that in my mind combined with this one.
They talked about forming your purpose before you talk to people. Every speech that we do, there’s a social purpose to it. And so I combine this notion of purpose and organization so that my takeaway from this is when I give a speech, I have to organize it into different parts and I need to let you know how each of these parts of my speech are gonna affect you or what each of the parts of my speech is gonna do for you. So you have it very clear in your head, I’m not just up here on stage babbling, I’m here to teach you something that I hope is useful for you and let you know at every turn. I’m not just babbling up here ’cause I like myself or like my voice. I’m actually trying to give you something useful that you can use.
Brett McKay: And did this carry over to just your everyday conversations beyond public speaking?
John Bowe: Totally. I shut up more. I think I talk less than I used to. That’s one good thing for the world. I think a lot of times we all talk just to hear our own voice and we like to be right. I noticed how many times I tried to say things to be interesting or original instead of just to help people. If you read Buddhism, there’s this very strict commandment on right speech. Only say things that are true and only say things that are helpful. I think I’d read that many times before, but now I live up to it much more often. When I’m talking to people, I pay much more attention to my timing. Am I talking to them at a time when they’re receptive to what I’m saying? Because maybe I’m brilliant and maybe I’m saying something in a perfect way, but I’m catching someone at the exact wrong time. That’s a fail, that’s not gonna get me a good result. If I am rushing and there’s something in my tone that sounds… Makes me sound like a jerk, I can pause a little bit better than I used to be able to and weed that out. I can avoid repetitions, I can avoid repeating the same thing as a way of bludgeoning people to get them to agree with me. I didn’t do a lot of that in the past, but now I definitely don’t do it. I think I can also narrow down my answers. When people ask me something I answer on point instead of letting my point drift.
And I think people feel a lot better served when you do that because they really know, oh, you’re talking to me, you’re addressing me, you’re giving me your honest best thinking, instead of just going all over the place.
Brett McKay: Okay, so Toastmasters, it gives you this… It feels artificial at first of how to organize your speech, but if you follow it, it’s all about helping the other person, the person you’re speaking to, understand what you’re trying to say. You’re trying to help them. Again, this is all about the audience first. Another thing that Toastmasters helps you work on is reducing your filler language and using more vivid and precise language. What is that like? And was that an issue for you using the filler words and things like that?
John Bowe: Toastmasters has a series of reports at the end of every meeting. So they have the grammarian and they have the uh counter and some others. And the uh counter goes around the room and tells the number of uhs and umms and likes and you knows that everybody who participated used. So during a few… You notice how I just said, so… During a few of my early meetings, they would go around the room and that person had three and that person had six and that person had two and that person had four. And then it got to me and I would have 17. And I could tell you that happened twice and then it never happened again. And of all the painful things about public speaking, not just when you’re doing it, but when you’re listening to other people do it, that filler word thing is, it’s so painful when you’re uh, listening to uh, someone go uh… It’s just agony. And you realize they’re taking up 20% of their speech time with this kind of lazy ungainly thing, you know? And as a speech coach, that’s one of the easiest things I can train people out of because whether you’re going to Toastmasters and you have some uh counter show you how badly you’re doing or you learn by some other method, it’s one of the easiest things to weed out. You just learn how to be more intentional when you speak and you can actually slow down.
And right now I’m giving an exaggerated version of that, but you can do it without the exaggerated version and skip the uhs and umms and sos and likes. So imagine if you could get 20% more potent in your speech just with one little trick.
Brett McKay: For those who don’t wanna join Toastmasters to get the uh counter, there’s software out there now that’s online, it uses artificial intelligence. You speak into your computer and then it’ll analyze your language and it’ll tell you how many uhs and umms and likes that you used and what percentage of that you used. It’ll even tell you how fast you’re speaking. I know a lot of people, that’s another issue with public speaking is speaking too fast because you get nervous and you just wanna get blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And Toastmasters is one of the things they tell you is like, you gotta slow down because again, audience first, it’ll help your audience understand you better.
John Bowe: It is one of the hardest things for people to learn that they… Everyone thinks time is money and that they’re doing their audience a favor by hurrying things up. But it doesn’t really work that way. I think the way you help people is by editing out all of the lame parts of your speech or presentation and then you can afford to speak more slowly. But everybody’s brain, I think, is so overcome by messaging and data. Everyone is very, very numb these days. And if you can actually speak in a way that reaches people and isn’t hard to understand and you explain your concepts really clearly, using a voice that is clear and an organizational plan that is clear and examples that are clear and you’ve already taken the trouble to contextualize them so that it’s easy for them to understand on their own terms, they will appreciate you a lot more. But also just understand what you’re saying. People won’t necessarily always agree with you, but at least they’ll understand what you’re saying and you’ll walk away from every whether it’s a personal encounter or a work situation, you’ll at least feel like people got you and you did a good job of explaining yourself. And if that’s the only outcome you get from speech training, that’s a great outcome. You will no longer feel so misunderstood. You’ll no longer feel like the world is dumb for not understanding you, because you will have explained yourself.
Brett McKay: So another issue that Toastmasters helps people address when they’re doing public speaking is body language. What did you learn about the importance of body language and how to use it when speaking at your Toastmaster meeting?
John Bowe: The subject of body language gave me the heebie-jeebies more than almost anything else because it felt creepy to me or cringy or uncomfortable to think I’m supposed to move in a certain way. And some of the instructions said put your shoulders back and have your feet so many inches apart. And I just put my foot down and I was like, no way am I gonna do that. And then I kept reading the Toastmaster stuff and also Aristotle and they both said the same thing in different ways. They said, anything you do that is distracting from your message is bad. And anything you do that enhances your message is good. And once I saw it through that lens or that angle, it became much easier. I don’t know, just to relax and think about my body language a little bit. I’m probably never gonna be some big super emotive, dramatic, theatrical speaker. I’m from the Midwest, we don’t do that. But I do understand if you’re clenching your fist together or your hands are stuck in your back pockets or something like that, you’re hunched over or you’re not making good eye contact, it’s distracting to people. So even if you’re talking about some green solution that’s gonna save the world, if you’re on a stage, people are gonna be thinking, wow, this person looks really uptight.
So you don’t wanna distract from your message. And really that’s as far as I usually need to go with most people. I just, if I’m working with people, I get them to understand what they look like and how it’s distracting and without needing to coach them on every little thing. I think that problem kind of takes care of itself.
Brett McKay: Does this go to Aristotle’s idea of ethos, the body language aspect?
John Bowe: Totally. I’ll back up and say, Aristotle in his book about rhetoric, talks about how everything we do is an attempt to persuade people around us of something small or large. It doesn’t have to be insidious or anything. And when we do that we use facts and we use emotions and we use character which he called ethos. And so ethos is kind of like what you know about me from Googling me or looking at my resume or whatever. But it’s also just how well I explain my information. And so if I’m staring at my shoe the whole time I’m talking to you, I’m destroying your ability to receive my information because you’re watching me freak out and stare at my shoe. If I explain things in three really clear parts which are designed to really tell my story and make my point in an interesting way, you’re gonna receive my information and remember it longer and be more likely to act on it. And all of this comes back to not just the brilliance of my point or my data or my logic, it’s the brilliance with which I express it to you and for you.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think for Aristotle ethos was probably the most powerful, persuasive, I would call it tool in rhetoric. It’s not to say that that logos or facts are not important or that emotions are not important. But for him, if you really wanna be persuasive, it all came down to ethos.
John Bowe: Aristotle said that of the three sort of channels or tools of persuasion, ethos is by far the controlling factor. And I think that’s where it runs totally counter to modern intelligence and modern education ’cause we’ve been so conditioned to think that facts are great, data’s great big data science that’s gonna save the world, and we’re not learning public speaking and rhetoric in school. And so you have all of these smart people who are unable to make their point. And I think like he… This is really interesting. In Aristotle’s book about rhetoric, he kind of admits that he hates rhetoric and that he wishes we lived in a world where everything was like geometry and logic could win out. But he said that’s not the world we live in. And there are a lot of people who will just never respond to the most logical argument you can make. And so this thing about ethos and studying ethos and studying how it works and how do you convince people was really designed to help smart people learn to get their points across. It’s not about acting confident or losing your anxiety, it’s about just arranging your argument in a way that people can actually understand.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Because when you organize your thoughts well, it goes to your ethos or character because people think, well, if you talk with clarity, you’re intelligent, you’re a competent person. Going to this idea of people emphasizing facts too much in our, I think, our modern idea of information transmission, you have a chapter that’s called Facts are Stupid Things. And that’s the point you’re making. It’s not that facts aren’t important, facts are important, logic is important, you need to have a logically sound argument. But I think oftentimes when people talk in public, what they immediately do is they just, what are all the facts? I’m just gonna collect as much data as I can and then I’m going to present it in a PowerPoint presentation and just read it off and I’m gonna give them the truth and that’ll be enough. And Aristotle and the Toastmasters will say, no, that’s not… You can have all the data and facts that are there, but if you can’t persuade people with it, then it’s all for not.
John Bowe: I think what we really, really have lost sight of is the fact that public speaking is about the public and it’s a social interaction, not a data transfer. It’s a great thing from evolutionary psychology by Jonathan Haidt where he is talking about how monkeys, when they were evolving the groups, the larger groups of monkeys won out over the smaller groups of monkey. So your ability to be in a big group of monkeys and know who’s in your group and function within a group was a more primary skill than your ability to read an Excel spreadsheet, for example, or just to go through the fine points of someone’s logical argument. You needed to know this tribal thing. And so for me, public speaking, what’s really going on? There’s people are just looking at you eyeball to eyeball and thinking, is Brett a reasonable dude? Does Brett make sense? Is Brett crazy? Is Brett like this furtive guy staring at his shoe or does he seem like a guy I’m gonna wanna do business with? And so all of this stuff about Ethos is really, you could call it, if you wanna shift it into the gear of sort of social cognition and neuroscience and all of that, it’s all about teaching you to look at your audience and explain things in a way that let them know that you’re a reasonable person and you’re able to focus on their needs for a few minutes instead of staring at your PowerPoint.
And what I see I work with a zillion clients now and a lot of ’em have these very data-heavy presentations they have to give and they’ll turn their butt to their audience and point to their deck and read on a screen the very information that their audience is reading. So what does that tell the audience? It tells the audience, I think you’re dumb. I think you’re so dumb that you need help reading. It doesn’t say I’m smart, you should trust me. It says I’m a bore, I’m not tuned into your needs and you have smart people all over the world doing this every day, not knowing that it’s failing on some animal level, what we want from one another and what we expect from one another.
Brett McKay: So you went through this experience at Toastmasters, you learned a lot. When you look back on it, how did it change your life going through this Toastmasters at a community room, at a grocery store?
John Bowe: I am not kidding. I know that this makes me sound silly, but for me, it was like a religious conversion experience. I just, I went from being a guy who thinks public speaking is dumb and learning about public speaking would be dumb and super uncool to realizing it’s the most profound training or experience you could ever have, short of some kind of religious experience. And I’m not kidding, it’s to go from thinking that the world is dumb and no one understands me to realizing, oh, I’m simply poor at expressing myself. If I slow down and I learn some of these techniques, I can make myself understood wherever I go. And people might disagree with me, but at least they’ll know me. And that’s a big step up. So that alienation that I grew up with and I was really a bad boy and a rebel and a I was very, very detached from the world for many years. So for me to find a way to reconnect to the world and then also help other people reconnect to the world, even without using any kind of religious or therapy kind of terminology or practice, just language training, speech training, it totally changed my life. It totally changed the direction of my life. It changed what I do for a living. It changed my optimism about the state of the world.
Brett McKay: And would you encourage other people to join Toastmasters?
John Bowe: Oh, I would encourage people to do it like their life depends upon it. I think it’s the shortest thing… You don’t need to spend years of your life doing it. You can spend a few hours and it will radically change the trajectory of your life. And the beauty of Toastmaster is that it’s almost free. The last time I checked it was $55 twice a year or something. So that’s a lot cheaper than just about anything else out there.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s cheaper than therapy.
John Bowe: It’s a lot cheaper than therapy. [laughter]
Brett McKay: Well John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
John Bowe: I have a website, which is johnfbowe.com. But also you can look up my book on Amazon or anything like that. I’ve got a couple of articles that I’ve written. The thing about the book is that it’s kind of like the prequel to public speaking. It’s like why you should learn to speak in public. It doesn’t really try to teach you how to do it. But I wrote an article for a magazine called Psyche and the editor was great. He beat it out of me in a way that was really helpful that just lays out a straightforward way to start thinking about public speaking.
Brett McKay: All right. Well John Bowe, thanks for you time. It’s been a pleasure.
John Bowe: Well, thank you, Brett. Yeah, it’s been a pleasure talking to you too.
Brett McKay: My guest today was John Bowe. He’s the author of the book, I Have Something To Say, it’s available on amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, johnfbowe.com. And Bowe is spelled B-O-W-E. Also, check out our show at aom.is/toastmasters where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy Ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code manliness at checkout for your free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android, iOS. You start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done so already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.