The Laughing Toastmaster: Evaluating Saint Valentine’s Day

It’s Valentine’s Day! Millions of couples are celebrating their love for one another and millions of Hallmark sales reps are celebrating their commissions. I’ve heard flower shops rake in their biggest yearly profit, only surpassed by Mother’s Day and Pet Day (April 11th).

The whole thing is a grossly commercialized marketing ploy, aimed at poor souls who think that buying and receiving gifts is a kind of “love insurance”. It’s a disgraceful manipulation of insecure imbeciles.

Like me.

C’mon folks, what’s wrong with a little self-delusion? What’s wrong with thinking that love is like an Oyster card that can be “topped up” on Valentine’s Day? A little credit so you don’t go “contactless”? Is it so bad to ask “The Boyfriend” (yes, he exists) for the card, flowers and chocolates? Of course, the chocolates will grow old and mouldy, as I’m too terrified of getting fatter and The Boyfriend leaving me. Insecure? You bet! I need Valentine’s Day!

I’m not alone. Studies show that in the run-up to Valentine’s our mating rituals go into a fast-forward-frenzy as dating profiles are desperately updated:


Sense of humour turned to a sense of urgency


Speed Dating breaks the sound barrier by skipping stupid introductions and going for the efficient, “Will you love me? Yes, or no?” Talk about hard gigs. Singletons suffer from bleeding fingertips due to so much swiping and servers crash as thousands log into “Lastminute-Date-Com”.

Many don’t agree with having just one day. They want to say “I love you” all year and give gifts whenever their heart feels like it. Truth be told if The Boyfriend said, “I love you” constantly and sent flowers at random I’d be suspicious. My uncle Alberto gave my aunt Carmen (not their real names) diamond earrings on a non-specific day saying, “I don’t need a date to celebrate our love”. Ten years later we find out he has another family in Seville and ‘her’ diamond earrings are bigger.

Just stick to Valentine’s Day thank you very much.

Others think that St. Valentine’s is too sugary sweet and that real love is tough, enduring and hard work. They have a point. Take The Boyfriend and I. We spent lockdown together and after a couple of weeks “couples time” felt like we were doing time. Or my first marriage, which was like the pandemic. I kept thinking, “It’s gonna get better, it’s gonna get better”… it never did.

This is why I suggest a “St. Daniel’s Day”, the patron saint of courage, fortitude and hard work. Card messages would reveal the more imperfect side of love & relationships:

From bedroom eyes to, “I’ve got conjunctivitis, can you help me with the drops?” Be my Valentine.

Even if the biggest cries of YES! YES! YES! are while we play scrabble, I love you.

For watching me go through food poisoning and hugging a toilet all day … then still loving me, I’m yours forever.

Sonia Aste

And why stop there? Why not have a lovey-dovey day for us, Toastmasters? After all, isn’t our organization where ‘LOVERS are made’? Sorry, I meant LEADERS … although many would argue that our skills bring confidence to “all areas of our lives”.

Plus, having been brought up a Catholic, I happen to know that our saints are like flowers, there’s one for every occasion!

Bring on “St. John Chrysostom Day”, the patron saint of public speakers! Legend says it took him twelve years before he got the nerve to give a speech. This was back in 347ce when there were no Toastmasters to guide him and speed up the process.

St. John Chrysostom’s Day would provide an outlet to express our love in a more Toastmasterly way. Hallmark cards would be filled with messages like:

Thanks to Toastmasters, I had the courage to speak up! I love you.

7 minutes? That’s just for speeches. My love is forever.

If we had a timekeeper for our love, it would always be red hot!

Well, it’s time to LOVE you and leave you, but not before confessing the Toastmasterly message I’ll be sending to “The Boyfriend”:

You’re my CCC: commend, commend, commend. Be my Valentine.

——— Sonia Aste is a Toastmaster who needs Valentine’s Day. She is a member of the Riverside Communicators Club.
——— More from Sonia on her website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram

Meet A Toastmaster: Charlie Warshawski

Multiple contests winner

Charlie Warshawski
Charlie Warshawski

The Reigate Rhetoric

What is your name, home club and contest you won?

Charlie Warshawski, The Reigate Rhetoric. I have got to the Division final in the International Speech Contest and the Humorous speech contest, the District final in the Evaluation contest.

What is your secret? / Why do you think you won?

Not sure if it is a secret! Following the process of practice, speak, receive feedback, improve. Always thinking of things from the perspective of what the audience may want to hear, more than what I may want to say. Thinking about the overall experience of the competition, and wanting to be/sound/say different things from fellow competitors.

Why would you recommend someone to participate in the Toastmasters speech contest?

It is a great way to advance our speaking skills in a relatively safe environment. Knowing we will be competing against other people may cause anxiety, but it may also encourage a stretch. It helps shift us out of the comfort of our own clubs. And mostly, it helps us find the speaking voice we are all looking for.

What is your next challenge?

For some time my challenge has been to improve my humorous speaking skills, so that is my area of focus.


Meet A Toastmaster: Charlotte Hitchings

Evaluation Contest Winner, J10 Area Director 2021/22

Charlotte Hitchings
Charlotte Hitchings

Wye Knot Speakers

What is your name, home club and the contest you won?

My name is Charlotte Hitchings and I am a member of Wye Knot Speakers, a club I sponsored, which chartered in 2020.  I achieved my DTM the same year.  I was also a charter member of Voice of Wales and Cardiff Toastmasters.  I am currently serving as Area Director for the second time and have also served as Division Director (or Governor as it was known then) in the past.

I won the Division J Evaluation Contest last year, becoming a finalist at the District Contest for the third time.

What is your secret? / Why do you think you won?

I believe I have been particularly successful in Evaluation contests because I am a very good listener!  My training as a leadership coach has come in very handy for this.  I have also learned from some very good Toastmasters evaluators, and one of the skills I’ve learned is to tune into my emotional reactions to a speech, consider what about the speech and the way it is delivered is evoking these.

Why would you recommend someone to participate in the Toastmasters speech contest?

Competing in contests hones your speaking skills more than anything else.  You observe and learn from others and experience speaking in fairly stressful situations which means any other context becomes easier!  In my experience, it’s fun too, but that might just be me!

What is your next challenge?

My next challenge is the International Speech Contest. I’ve made it to Area in the past but that was a long time ago.  Once I am no longer Area Director, I’ll be back having a go!

Why Elrond’s Council Was a Bad Meeting

It’s not only to good people that bad meetings happen. Bad meetings happen to good elves and dwarves too.

Think of the Council of Elrond from the Lord of the Rings.

If you’ve never seen it, or you just don’t have it fresh in the memory, you can refresh it on YouTube, using the link to Part 1 and Part 2

Elrond, one of the top elves, gathers some selected men, dwarves, and elves to discuss what they should do with the One Ring, and assumes the role of the facilitator. But when the meeting starts, he loses control in less than a minute and the meeting turns into chaos. The chaos is resolved only by a shocking proposal by Frodo, that it should be he who will carry the Ring to Mordor. From there, groupthink prevails, everyone rallies around this absurd idea. In the end, Sauron is defeated, but at the cost of thousands of lives. All that while a simple alternative was at hand: Gandalf could simply have called his friend’s eagles, and they could have taken the ring to Mordor by air (as described in Lord of the Rings: How it Should Have Ended).

If you don’t want to repeat some of Elrond’s mistakes in your own meeting, read on: I’m going to use “10 Tips On How To Run PERFECT Meetings” by AJ & Smart to help Elrond run a better meeting next time.

Tip 1: Appoint a FACILITATOR

The good thing was that Elrond WAS a facilitator. Unfortunately, the group did not respect him much as one, and he soon lost control.

How to avoid this? As a facilitator, first thing, get the group to agree on the rules of the meeting – and to follow the lead of the facilitator. Examples of rules that could have been useful in this specific case: “One person speaks at a time”, “stop the discussion when the facilitator calls time”, “do not touch the One Ring”.

Tip 2: Get the TEAM right!

Perhaps you’ve noticed that there are some men, elves, and dwarves in the meeting who do not play any active role. This is fine, until the big argument starts – and all those “extras” join the argument, only contributing to the chaos and making the group harder to manage.

Next time, Elrond should Get his Team right, identify who needs to be in the meeting and who doesn’t – and invite only those who do.

Tip 3: SEQUENCE your discussions

Elrond’s meeting completely lacked structure.

When Elrond mentions for the first time that the “Ring Must be Destroyed”, Gimli stands up and tries to smash it with his axe. He hits the ring with full force, but it’s his axe that falls apart, leaving Gimli stunned on his back and the ring unscathed.

This is a clear example of “Jumping to conclusions”; but even when it’s Gimli who embarrasses himself, it is Elrond who failed to lay out the sequence of the meeting. Had he made it clear that there will be time for ideation, discussion, and perhaps even prototyping possible solutions, Gimli might have been a bit more relaxed.

Tip 4: VISUALIZE your discussions

Have you noticed nobody was taking notes? This is not about literacy; Elrond could easily have taken notes in the form of sketches. Visualizing a discussion helps prevent unnecessary misunderstandings.

Tip 5: TIMEBOX your activities

While in most meetings, “Timebox” works to make things go faster, the Council of Elrond went very quickly. The moment Frodo proposed that he would take the ring, everyone stopped arguing. Some of the Council attendees even pledged to join him on his journey and offered their service. Any further discussion was shut down.

Elrond as facilitator got so overwhelmed by the unexpected turn of events that he simply accepted the solution. Had Elrond used a timer, he would have known that there was still enough time to explore other options. Then, he could have said: “Great idea, Frodo! Writing it down. Now, everyone, what else can you think of?”


Right after Frodo brought the Ring forth, there was a moment of awkward silence. Boromir – a typical extrovert – did not wait for too long before filling it with his own words: “A Dream – I saw the Eastern Skies grow dark…”

While poetic, it was not particularly helpful. Moreover, Boromir was definitely not the most knowledgeable on the matter of the Ring. Aragorn, Legolas or Gandalf would have had something more valuable to say, but they were holding back. Boromir was the first to speak up, and so the discussion went his way.

It’s the facilitator’s job to create an environment where everyone has an equal chance to contribute. Elrond could have given everyone some quiet time to think and write their ideas down. Maybe even the “extras” who did not get a chance to speak in the scene would come up with something useful!

Tip 7: Have a PARKING LOT to stop sidetracking discussions

When Legolas breaks the news that, actually, Aragorn is the heir of Isildur and the heir to the throne of Gondor, Boromir gets defensive, and the discussion gets sidetracked. This was the perfect moment for Elrond to use the Parking Lot.

“Okay guys, deciding whether or not Gondor needs a king is a fascinating discussion, but it’s a little off-topic. Why don’t we park it for now and come back to it when we have time, perhaps after Sauron is defeated?”

Tip 8: Always finish a meeting with a DECISION

Elrond scored on this one in this meeting – at least one thing was done right!

Tip 9: Use VOTING to help you make decisions

It looked like in the end, everyone supported the idea of Frodo carrying the ring, didn’t it? But did they, really? What if there were many who were afraid to speak up so as not to interrupt the euphoric moment?

Next time, when Elrond will want to ensure a good outcome of the meeting, he can achieve it by pushing the group to generate at least two good alternatives and then by having them vote anonymously on the solutions. Who knows? Had he done that, the story might have been very different!

Tip 10: Show, don’t tell

Elrond tries to explain the task:

“(The Ring) must be taken deep into Mordor and cast into the fiery chasm from where it came.”

Boromir adds some drama and elaborates. But still – it was hard to imagine such a journey! Had either of them shown the group a simple map displaying all the mountains, marshes and other obstacles, they could have improved their understanding of the challenge – and nudged them to come up with an alternative to the journey on foot.

This time, Elrond got lucky, and all turned out well in the end. The next time, perhaps he will improve his facilitation game and will run a better meeting.

And while in your own meetings you may not be discussing saving the world from evil; who knows? Maybe you’ll find these tips handy too.


Lukas is a Design Thinker and Business Facilitator in a global pharma company. In 2019-2020 he was the District Director in Toastmasters International for District 110 – Wild East of Europe. Besides the Lord of the Rings, he is also a fan of movies by Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. 

The Laughing Toastmaster: No More January Blues!

Here’s Your Happiness Booster

I love January! It’s my favourite month of the year, providing me with endless hours of joy and happiness, without even having a drink. Although I do drink. I leave ‘Dry January’ in the Sahara Desert, where it belongs.

And no, I have not relocated to sunny Australia (where it’s summer and everyone is hot). I live in miserable London, where January resembles a bowl of old porridge; cold and grey, with a thick skin of despair forming over it.

I wasn’t always this jubilant. In the past, I too believed in the sanctity of ‘The January Blues’. Its arrival would have me moaning, head spinning and green projectile vomiting (think Linda Blair in the EXORCIST), after being possessed by the ‘non-stop food and alcohol consumption’ demon.

This was not a good look. Certainly not for a Toastmaster! January is one of the most important months in our calendar year! We welcome our new members, meet and mentor our mentees, mitigate our mentors’ mammoth motivations and manage and maximize our meetings. It’s up to us to create a happy, positive environment where there’s no room for burdensome, bothersome blues.

What to do? Well, my life changed when my German grandmother (Oma) took pity on me and disclosed the secret of transforming January into a Danish Hygge (concept of cosines), with a tiny Teutonic touch.

All one has to do is follow three simple steps during this long winter month:

  1. Eat apple strudel.
  2. Read the German classics (OK, maybe skip this one).
  3. Avoid comparisons. Unless they bring you joy.

Whatever you think of the Germans (I think they’re terrific!), no other nation has taken so much time and energy exploring the nature of the human spirit. (*) Hence my Oma’s advice.

Feeling guilty because you’ve drunk too much? In fact, it’s January the 15th and you’re still drinking? Don’t fret! I wait for recycling day and take a peek at my neighbour’s empty bottles and count: prosecco (12), wine (10), vodka (3), plus so many beers I lose track. Yuppie!! Some people really have a drinking problem! Better open that Rioja bottle to celebrate!

Does your body look like something out of ‘SWAMP THING’ the movie? Mine does. I’m wearing loungewear (a.k.a. old baggy sweats) because nothing else fits! Do I panic and go on one of those stupid detox diets? Of course not. Instead, I google the adorably successful MICHELIN MAN and think, ‘Curves are Cool’! As for my cellulite? Well, I always wanted dimples.

You’re broke. Skint, wiped, ruined, in the red, NO DINERO. Even the ‘Save The Dolphin’ card refused your application.

Sonia Aste wearing red hat

This situation used to drive me into a frenzied shopping spree that would leave me even more in debt and feeling terribly guilty. Thanks to my Oma’s advice, I now shop like I have millions! Because guess what? It’s not MY PROBLEM anymore! As any banker will tell you (trust me, I was a banker):

‘If you owe a small amount of money, you worry about the bank.’

‘If you owe a copious amount of money, the bank worries about you!’

As the old saying goes, ‘You can’t take it with you’ and that includes debt.

Over Christmas, you realize everyone else is better off? Hear, hear! My older sister has just bought her second home, my little sister is in the Bahamas and my brother’s third book on surfing has just been published. I was the one that told him he should write the first one! Does he remember? So I can get some royalties? Nope. Not even a, ‘THANK YOU SISTER I OWE YOU MY LIFE’.

Do I mope, blame it on January and fall into a deep depression? No, I do not. What I do is drive to a ‘Welcome Break’ (those along the M1 are my personal favourites) and watch the world go by. Parents fighting, children screaming, grandparents staring aghast, horrified at what they’ve created. It’s a glorious reminder that compared to many a soul in the human race – I’m winning!

Finally, are you freezing cold? Call someone in Scotland and you’ll feel delightfully euphoric and radiantly warm!

In January, follow my Oma’s advice. Because you’re a winner!


(*) For almost 400 years, the German novel has used everything from history to philosophy to explore the nature of the human spirit.


——— Sonia Aste is a Toastmaster who loves January. She is a member of the Riverside Communicators Club.
——— More from Sonia on her website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram