Winners at the Area 45 Fall Speech Contest

I had the privilege of organizing the Joint Area 45/46 Fall Speech Contest for Toastmasters, in concert with Deb Tyler, the Area 46 Governor. I was as pleased as punch when two members of my Home club came up with some solid wins.

This is me, proud Area 45 Governor and the Club President of the Ashburn Toastmasters Club, standing with Gretchen Schutte, who won first place in Table Topics, and Yvonne Porter, who won second place in Humorous Speech. Plus, I think this is the first picture of me in a suit and tie ever published on the Web.

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Going the Distance

This was an impromptu motivational speech that I gave today for Verizon’s corporate Toastmasters club, the Ashburn Professional Speakers. My talk was featured near the end of their Club Contest, during that brief interval in which the Chief Judge and the ballot counters were out of the room tallying the judging results.

I had the opportunity to participate in the 2012 Toastmasters Spring Contest. I won at the Club level, and advanced to the Area level.

Then I competed in the Area contest, and was soundly defeated.

(This is where I do my best hangdog look, as if I’m totally crushed at having been defeated…which elicits a nice laugh from the audience.)

I was beaten by David Kirstin, from Raytheon’s U2 Can Speak Toastmasters Club.

It’s OK, though. It was my first time in any sort of public speaking competition. I didn’t really expect to win. I just wanted to accomplish two things. First, I wanted to avoid embarrassing myself in public. Second, I wanted to give the best speech I was capable of.

You’ve all seen the movie Rocky, right? That’s all I wanted. I didn’t expect to win. I just wanted to go the distance.

What I really got out of the contest was much, much more. You see, I discovered that I was competitive.

Yes, I was beaten. And quite legitimately, I might add. David was the eventual Division winner as well, before ultimately losing in the District finals. Even though I lost, I did get a second place trophy, which was nice.

If public speaking were a hill, then David was certainly further up that hill than I was. But what I found interesting was that I could see what he was doing that was better than what I was doing. I could see a path up the hill to where he was.

By watching speakers who were better than me, I could see things I needed to work on. For example, I noticed that David used the floor better than I did. He also maintained better eye contact with the audience. When I was speaking, I tended to look down when I was thinking about key transitions in my talk, thereby breaking my audience connection.

Because I’d been involved in the contest process, and was curious, I went ahead and attended the Division Contest and, later, saw the finals at the District 29 Spring Conference. It was a true learning experience for me, picking up speaking tips by watching speakers who were better than me.

So, this year, I encourage all of you to take advantage of the Toastmasters Fall Contest season. You’re off to a great start today with your own Club Contest. If you won today at the Club level, take your best shot and see how far you can go.

I’d also encourage all of you to attend the upcoming Area Contest on September 22nd. It’s followed by the Division Contest on October 7th and the District 29 Fall Conference on November 9 – 10. You’d be surprised how much you can learn just by watching some of the best speakers in our organization.

Thank you.

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Advice for Speech Contests

Thanks to Toastmasters, I’ve had a variety of opportunities to participate in speech contests, including simply being a member of the audience, competing in them, judging them, and running them. Here’s some advice and information that I provide to competitors before a contest.

Contests have more formal rules than regular Toastmasters meetings, so they’re going to be a slightly different experience for everyone, especially competitors.

Here are some key things to remember:

  1. Outsiders at a contest may very well be judges, but we’re not supposed to notice who the judges are. Although we may introduce external folks as visiting dignitaries, they will never be designated as judges. At larger contests, the Chief Judge may be known, but none of the contributing judges will be identified.

  2. Time is important in competition. Speeches are 5 – 7 minutes, plus or minus 30 seconds. Table topics (short ad hoc question responses) are 1 – 2 minutes, plus 30 seconds (they must make the minimum of 1 minute). Evaluations are 2 – 3 minutes, plus or minus 30 seconds. Failure to meet the time limits will result in disqualification.

  3. Judges are not allowed to know the experience level of competitors, so the Agenda will not show Toastmasters level designations, e.g. – “CC” for Competent Communicator, “ACS” for Advanced Communicator Silver, etc. If you have a badge that shows these designations, please don’t wear it.

  4. In the Table Topics Contest, all contestants will be responding to the same question. Competitors will be sequestered until it’s their time to compete. One of the jobs of the Sergeant-at-Arms (SAA) at a contest is to handle the sequestering.

  5. In the Evaluation Contest, all contestants watch the same speech from a designated Model Speaker. After the speech, all notes are collected and the contestants are sequestered without their notes or any paper/materials. Contestants get their notes back briefly before they compete. One of the jobs of the Sergeant-at-Arms (SAA) at a contest is to handle the sequestering.

  6. Just because a contest is more formal, don’t worry about it. You’ve done this before. You can do it again. It’s still the same, friendly audience. Relax. Have fun.

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Neil Gaiman at the Chicago World Con

I was kind of bummed out because I had to leave the Chicago World Con a little early. My flight was at 6:00 PM, so I’d be flying out about two hours before the Hugo Awards even started.

I’d already checked out and left my suitcase in storage with the bellhops while I went to a few final sessions. Now I was back collecting my suitcase. This was it. The end of the convention for me. In just a minute, I’d be leaving the Hyatt Regency, the convention hotel, for good.

I turned around and Neil Gaiman was right behind me. He was storing a bag. I was pretty sure he wasn’t leaving since he was up for a Hugo Award for writing the screenplay for a well-regarded Doctor Who episode.

I probably sounded like the usual star-struck fan, but I quickly asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking his picture with me. He graciously agreed, shook my hand and asked my name. Quite frankly, he was very nice about it all.

I snagged the first passer-by I saw to take the picture, which turned out to be a middle-aged woman walking with her husband and two teenagers.

Her husband was clearly a science fiction fan and quipped about us being “old friends.” The woman had no idea who Neil Gaiman was, but she snapped the picture quite competently anyway. I thanked Neil Gaiman for the photo opportunity and he shook my hand again before he walked away.

After he was sufficiently far away, my photographer asked me who the man was, while her husband chortled at her.

I explained: “That was Neil Gaiman. New York Times bestselling writer. Hugo winner for his novel American Gods, which is like the Oscars for the science fiction field. Author of the Sandman series of graphic novels, probably the most celebrated graphic novels of all time. He’s also the screenwriter for successful movies like Stardust, etc. He’s probably one of the most prominent writers at this entire convention.”

Strangely, even though I was leaving the convention, I wasn’t bummed out anymore.

Thanks, Neil.

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A Report on the 70th World Con: Part 4

Last day of the conference for me. I have to leave early today to get back to Virginia. I’ll be on a plane by the time the Hugo Awards start.

Fortunately, I manage to cram two excellent sessions into my schedule in the morning.


The first was “World Building Work Shop 3: The Ecosystem,” with panelists Eytan Kollin, Dani Kollin, Nancy Kress, Derek Kunsken and Brenda Cooper. This was part three of a six-part world-building exercise. I’d missed the first two parts because they were held in the early mornings and I’d been somewhat sick for the entire con. The last three were scheduled for after I left. So, I was really looking forward to catching at least one of these sessions.

And what a session it was, with full audience participation. In previous sessions, they’d designed a non-oxygen world and some basics for that world’s ecology. In this session, they were designing the ecosystem, including key predators, prey animals, plants, etc. Truly a stand-out session.

One of the conclusions that the whole crowd reached was that this whole exercise should be released as open source, and anybody should be able to leverage the notes and commentary related to the workshop. They solicited web-knowledgeable volunteers to help them out, so I tendered my name to Dani Kollin as a volunteer. This is a project I’d be proud to get behind.


I’ve always been interested in screenwriting. The second session I attended was called “INT: Screenwriter Brain,” with panelists Michael Cassutt, Melinda Snodgrass, B. A. Chepaitis and Harry Kloor. All of the panelists thought the name of the session was dumb.

They all had a good time talking about screenwriting, and how it differs from novel writing, for one thing, being much more visually-oriented. I’m not sure I learned a lot, except that it was fun listening to some professional screenwriters reminicing about their craft.


Sad to leave the convention. It feels like it’s over way too soon, and that I never had the energy level to see or do everything that I wanted to. But next year, it’s San Antonio, TX. And I’ve already got plans for London in 2014.

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A Report on the 70th World Con: Part 3

Still feeling under the weather, but determined to have as much fun (by damn) as possible at the convention.

Found out that some events are being co-hosted over the Internet with Dragon Con, which is being held in Atlanta. Coincidentally, I was in Atlanta last week speaking at the GFIRST Cyber Security Conference (for my day job), which was held at the same hotel as the Dragon Con, the Marriot Marquis.

Let’s talk about scale for a moment. GFIRST was a 1675-person technical conference. World Con was a 6000-person literary convention. Dragon Con was a 35,000-person media event. I just thought it was ironic that if I’d stayed in Atlanta for just a couple more days, I’d have ended up at a great convention there, too. Anyway, the two conventions arranged things so that the Hugo Awards (on Sunday, tomorrow) would be shown simultaneously at both conventions, a true first.


My Pepsi bottle (strictly medicinal, for much-needed caffeine and carry-as-you-go cough syrup alternative) and I attended four sessions today:

Another View on Character Building
Panelists: Carol Berg, Barbara Galler-Smith, Paco Ruiz, Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Moral Ambiguity in SF
Panelists: Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Nancy Kress, Charles Stross, Jay Lake, Lissa Price

Vivid Character Building
Panelists: Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Carol Berg, Kay Kenyon, Randy Henderson, Teresa Frohock

Series, Why Do We Love Them? Why Do We Hate Them?
Panelists: Mike Shepherd Moscoe, Eric Flint, Ferrett Steinmetz, Jack McDevitt, Lyda Morehouse

The first three sessions were entertaining, but not overly memorable. The last was quite nice, with an excellent give-and-take between Mike Moscoe, who has a successful military series; Eric Flint, who has the outrageously successful and popular 1632 series; and Jack McDevitt, with his Priscilla Hutchins space exploration series and the Benedict SF mystery series.

An Unexpected Event

There was one highly unusual event, today. I saved somebody’s life.

Returning from lunch, I entered the hotel lobby. The escalator down to the Bronze level was about 20 feet away from me to my right. I saw a large, obese man on a hotel scooter accidentally hit the wrong control on his vehicle and drive it down the escalator.

I immediately ran after him, grabbing him and the vehicle from behind. Together with two other gentleman who were underneath him, we kept him from tumbling down the escalator, as well as preventing anybody else from getting hurt. When his scooter got jammed at the bottom, I was the only one powerful enough to unjam it and get him and the scooter out-of-the-way.

Totally unexpected. I still don’t know if the guy realized how dangerous that escapade was.

I felt pretty good afterwards, though. I saw a crisis, and acted quickly to prevent it. It’s not every day that you get to do something like that.


I went out for a nice Thai dinner and went to bed early. Highly unusual for me, but I was running on empty by the end of the day.

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