Over four years ago at the District 69 Convention it was noted that while Area 9 had a significant indigenous population it did not have one indigenous member, let alone an indigenous club. The cogs of Toastmasters work slowly but persistence has its rewards.

Charles Darwin University Rural Campus is fifteen minutes from Katherine which is remote, renowned for its stunning gorge, and its not so stunning fruit bats and delicious mangoes. Toastmaster Shirley Alison planned the community indigenous workshop, found the funding and organised the participants. We had use of excellent facilities. My brief: “To instil confidence and leadership skills into the indigenous youth from remote communities in a two day workshop”.Shirley at work

My attempts to arrange the tables and chairs required guidance and knowledge of local custom that dictates that the speaker not have his or her back to anyone. This was solved by using a large semi-circle so all participants could sit in the back row.

Our participants were twenty six indigenous youth, for most of whom English is a second or third language, requiring them to translate into their native tongue and back again to speak. Few can write with ease. Most are shy, some extremely shy, and family relationships determine who can sit alongside whom, in a strictly observed respectful system. Looking around the room I begin to realise just how flexible I will need to be to adapt to their culture and expectations. My beautifully bound forty page manual, with the finely timed program, and the evaluation check books demonstrate to me how much I have to learn about how learning can effectively take place in this setting.


The workshop was evaluated by some local dignitaries including two Shire CEO’s, members of the stolen generation, the Australia Post representative who funded the workshop, Charles Darwin University staff, Marilyn Freeman the District DG and other indigenous and local interested parties.

The participants were from three different regions, Borroloola, (Borulula) Ngukurr (Nooka) and Numbulwar (Numbala). These areas are six to twelve hours away along dirt roads and divided from each other by hundreds of kilometres of impassable coastal territory, with little interaction. My standard ice-breaker hits a brick wall due to their shyness. Next we try ‘the pledge’. This works better, especially when I enthusiastically lead the reading of the pledge which concludes:

I promise to support and encourage everyone in the room, including the over enthusiastic presenters and will trust in everything they say – for today anyway, after that “Who gives a damn!!!”

Thanks to Darren LaCroix, who introduced me to ‘the pledge’.

Humour at work

Humour at work

Time for the first break: as I drink my cup of tea, I contemplate the next module “How to plan a memorable speech in ten minutes” and wonder if using mind maps is such a great idea. Shirley organises a marshal to ensure everyone stays on track. We achieve 100% muster. A performance repeated at the end of every session. We divide the group into five mixed up groups and start working on joint speeches.

They soon get the hang of the main mind maps. The groups chatter and laugh sometimes breaking into their community languages. We work on the speech mind maps built around our structure: opening overview; main points 1,2,3; supporting point telling a story, accommodating humour; followed by the close, summing-up and a call to action. Gradually the speech mind maps took form, with each of the team of five taking on one section of the speech.

The evaluation education session next, instilled the Toastmasters “Commend, Recommend, Commend” hamburger format. When we were ready to start presenting the speeches one of the young coordinators came out and wrote on the white board, “Be Game, Not Shame” in large letters. I then understood that “shy” and “shame” are interchangeable in their language. As the speeches proceeded the shyness was very visible. But the support from the stronger members of the teams for those struggling, was inspirational. No-one was ever left in shame, someone would slip in bedside those struggling to quietly help them out.

Group work on speeches

Group work on speeches

An impromptu speaking education session was made relevant by Shirley used her local knowledge to present topics that were applicable to community life. The responses might have been a bit stilted as the participants shyly answered Shirley’s open questions, BUT, the great thing was that everyone took part. Everyone had a go.

Judicious editing of the day’s video recording provided a great boost to everyone’s confidence when we played back the edited video on day 2. From this experience I learned again the power of positive laughter and also saw how well the participants could work with visual recall. Preparing the groups for the final presentation Shirley explained that for the workshop to be repeated for other communities, they had to put on an amazing final show. From then on all stops were out and everyone visibly tried their hardest demonstrating an awe-inspiring commitment to the larger community.

The feedback was hugely encouraging. The Katherine and Roper Gulf Shire CEOs said they could not believe what had been achieved in under two days. Michael Berto, Roper Gulf CEO, suggested Toastmasters should work with their eight hundred staff to lift confidence, and improve communication and leadership skills. Marilyn Freeman, District 69 Governor, shared a Toastmasters perspective. The local Postmistress, Jane, who had organised the funding presented the certificates, and finally, an indigenous woman from the stolen generation impressed on the participants the importance of being good communicators and strong leaders.

Where to from here? A Stolen Generation workshop is planned for March 2014, the Katherine club plans to meet with Roper Gulf Shire and will work on funding for future workshops. Youth Coordinator from Borroloola, Luzy, plans to join Katherine Toastmasters and she is working on bringing the Toastmaster activities to her Booroloola community. All this from a club Chartered three days after the workshop with only one experienced Toastmaster. A twelve minute video presentation on the workshop outcomes was presented at the annual Post Office community funding committee meeting in Darwin. This was well received and has put Katherine Club in a very strong position for future funding.

mindmaps1And now my “Call to action.” I believe we will have a number of workshops needing presenters in outback Australia offering funded travel and an amazing and rewarding opportunity for experienced Toastmasters. Even closer to home we may find groups, who can really benefit from increased confidence and leadership skills. My challenge to you is, as a Toastmaster, find out how you can make a difference, and in the words of our wonderful young participants “Be Game, Not Shame”.


David Burston joined Toastmasters in 2008. Currently President of Marlin Coast Club in Cairns, he has been an Area 9 Governor, Northern Division Governor, and District 69 PRO for two years and is a Toastmaster Ambassador. With help from many David condensed and documented the Speechcraft course into a one day workshop and has presented in the remote regions of Mount Isa, Alice Springs and Katherine as well as Cairns and Darwin. David is a mentor to the Katherine club and very proud of their efforts.