Born and raised in Waverly, Illinois, Ralph C. Smedley went on to graduate from Illinois Wesleyan University. That was in 1903. Ralph then accepted the position of director of education at the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in Bloomington, Illinois. He realized rather quickly that most of the boys in the care of the YMCA lacked confidence.
Smedley determined that teaching the young men how to communicate better would help them build self-assurance and poise. With a new-found confidence and increased skill at expressing themselves, Smedley believed, the boys would stand a greater chance of finding better jobs and be more successful in life. Importantly, Smedley knew that along with improved speaking skills, the format he was creating would teach the boys great leadership skills.
Ralph was insightful enough to know that the men would not be engaged if he created a formal communication curriculum. Instead, he visioned a more relaxed club-like atmosphere. That type of environment would allow them to feel comfortable in speaking and be more receptive to the constructive evaluations that Smedley would initiate. The boys would rotate between speaking, evaluating, and leading meetings. The first meeting of Smedley’s club took place in 1905. It gained traction, becoming popular with the young men of the YMCA.
For his part, Ralph Smedley’s performance led to career advancement and saw him move to other YMCA’s in Illinois – eventually moving to San Jose, California. Smedley initiated his speaking club in each of the YMCA’s to which he was assigned. In every instance, the clubs gained popularity and thrived – but only until Smedley transferred to his next position. Once he left, each club saw interest wane and all of them eventually phased out.
Ralph believed in the potential of the speaking club format – proving it by continuing to start a club at every stop. In 1922 he was assigned to the YMCA in Santa Ana, California where he focused on overseeing the construction of a new building. Once that was completed – nearly twenty years after his first effort – he started a speaking club at the new facility. The first Santa Ana meeting was held on October 22, 1924.
Once again, the concept was well received and the young men of the YMCA became fully engaged. This time, however, something was different. The interest didn’t wane as Smedley’s responsibilities expanded. This time the spark turned to a flame – and spread. Local businesses learned of the concept and saw its potential. YMCA’s throughout Southern California inquired about starting their own clubs.
The interest was so great that Smedley created a “Manual of Instructions” and “Ten Lessons in Public Speaking”. He had them bound into brochures and used them to respond to the many inquiries. Four years after starting the Santa Ana YMCA’s speaking club, Smedley had his manuals copyrighted and trademarked the name “Toastmasters Club”. After another four years – and having added a club in British Columbia, Canada – the name was changed to Toastmasters International and it was incorporated as a California non-profit organization.
Today the organization’s membership exceeds 345,000 in more than 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Countless thousands have benefited from improved speaking and leadership skills. These results are the due to the vision, passion, purpose and persistence of a truly fearless brand – Ralph C. Smedley.
Fearless Brands are both innovative and persistent
Ralph C. Smedley had no idea that his speaking club concept would ultimately become an international organization that would touch millions of lives and careers. He only knew that his job was to educate the young men in his charge. His vision allowed him to take an innovative approach to teaching – his persistence gave the concept a chance to survive and thrive.
The impact of Toastmasters was so great that in 1950 Smedley’ alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan University, bestowed him with an honorary degree – Doctor of Humane Letters. Toastmasters named him honorary president and lifetime board member. Smedley died on September 11, 1965, but his legacy – Toastmasters International – lives on.
There’s much that we can learn from the principles on which Dr. Ralph C. Smedley created Toastmasters – there’s much we can learn from the man himself:
Good communication is essential to good leadership – Smedley knew that one can’t be a great leader without being a great communicator – although great communicators aren’t necessarily good leaders. Good communication involves delivering a clear message – equally important, good communication requires the ability to listen with an intent to understand. Great leaders are skilled both at delivering and receiving communication.
Education is the goal – learning by doing is the strategy – Smedley believed that learning is best in moments of enjoyment. With that, he created a club environment – one which would be inclusive and comfortable. Having a shared purpose and sense of belonging allowed the members to give and receive support and critiques in a relaxed non-threatening environment.
Overcome your fear – A majority of people have a fear of public speaking. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that given a choice, most people at a funeral would prefer to be in the casket than to give the eulogy. Overcoming that fear will present greater opportunity not just in our professional lives – but in every aspect of our lives. Every aspect of Toastmasters has been constructed to demystify public speaking – to make us comfortable speaking in large and small groups.
Prepare, prepare, prepare – In the words of Ralph Smedley, “The unprepared speaker has a right to be afraid.” He knew that learning and practicing in a comfortable environment could help to eliminate a person’s fear of public speaking. He also knew that being unprepared was a sure path to disaster. Preparation is critical for effective public speaking – both for planned talks and impromptu situations which arise. Smedley added elements to the curriculum which address each of those possibilities. Simple lesson – be prepared.
Dr. Ralph C. Smedley is one of the least known individuals in the world of self-improvement – yet his contributions are great and far-reaching. If we follow his approach when pursuing our vision, we are likely to successfully achieve our goals. Embracing three attributes – passion, purpose, and persistence – will allow us to become fearless brands and enjoy the results which follow.