A gift of miscommunication

As VP Education for my Toastmasters club, my responsibilities include setting up the agenda for our weekly meetings. I help people take on new responsibilities, track their progress in leadership and public speaking skills, and do my best to help meetings stay interesting, relevant, and a good use of people’s time.

Just as I’m settling in to the new-to-me role, summer holidays and work obligations are hitting the club with people being unavailable with anything from weeks to same-day to after-the-fact notice. Several highly engaged members typically help out by volunteering to fill the gaps and everything has worked well to date.

This week, with over a third of our members unavailable, I’d arranged an agenda with a single speech and an awards ceremony. I alerted the person responsible for the expandable impromptu speaking section of our meeting that we could benefit from having more than the typical 4-6 people come up to speak briefly on the week’s theme. It would be a solid meeting.

Out of the blue, one of my fellow executives invited a guest from a nearby club to speak this week. Joe is an engaging speaker with rich experience. Of course, I replied, we’d love to have a short speech and I could adjust the schedule to accommodate the additional ten minutes for his speech and evaluation. I also noted alternate dates with the suggestion that another week could give our guest a larger audience [and not leave me juggling the agenda the same day as the meeting].

Joe’s banter fell silent after two initial messages. I continued making arrangements, not knowing whether he would be coming this week or in the future. I alerted everyone whose role would be affected by the addition of a second speech and evaluation. Regardless of whether I heard back from our guest with a confirmation or not, everything was manageable.

Then the cancellations rolled in. Two roles needed to be reassigned. No problem: I dealt with the changes. People were happy to step in where and as needed. One additional person found they would be delayed at work. We found someone to cover. Still no word from our guest, but I knew the person who’d invited him would be there and all would work out.

It was a pleasure to see Joe at the meeting. We had a brief discussion of how his double-length speech would fit into our schedule, and I made sure our meeting’s Chair [Toastmaster] was comfortable with the adjustment. But as the meeting was about to begin, we were missing the person who had invited our guest and promised to evaluate both his speech and the meeting as a whole. I would receive an email apologizing for her absence after the meeting started.

An experienced member graciously stepped in to provide an evaluation of Joe’s speech, an excellent humorous talk about one of his recent misadventures. Joe himself offered to evaluate the meeting. He said it was the least he could do to make up for having been unreachable due to ISP problems at home.

I could not have planned a better outcome had I known about the length of Joe’s speech and various absences ahead of time. The meeting ran smoothly, if a few minutes past its allotted time, with a high level of participation. Joe’s review of our meeting and his impressions of the club’s strengths were as helpful as the quarterly visits from the Area Director who formally evaluates all clubs in the area. I only wish more of the regular club members could have been there to hear Joe’s speech and his thoughtful evaluation of our club … an evaluation he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to give had more experienced members come to the meeting.

When communication is missed or misinterpreted, handling the fallout can be stressful. That stress is an opportunity to find creative ways to adjust to the unexpected. This talk by David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) is an excellent reminder of a superb framework for managing yourself in the face of change.


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