Picked Up Some Speech Contest Bling

2014 Club Contest Public Speaking Trophies I picked up some bling at the Ashburn Toastmasters Speech Competition yesterday. I won 1st place in the International Speech Contest and 1st place in the Evaluation Contest. I’ve been in Toastmasters for over three years now, so I expect to be competitive. However, both contests featured real competitors, so winning both was both unexpected and gratifying.

For those who don’t know how these competitions work, there are two contests. The International Speech Contest is a 7-rung contest. If you win at the Club level, as I did, then you advance to the Area level, followed by Division, District, Semi-Region, Region and World. If you win at the World level, then 1) you’ve beaten more than 30,000 contestants world-wide, and 2) you get to call yourself the World Champion of Public Speaking for the next year (and you’ll receive tons of both paid and unpaid speaking engagements).

Speeches for the International Speech Contest generally have to be motivational, inspirational and, often, include heart-felt stories in order to be competitive. I took a chance with the Club level, and re-used my “What’s Your Dream?” speech from last week’s taping of the TV show, Mastering Business Communications. It’s a good speech, and had some clear tie-ins that made it particularly meaningful to the members of Ashburn Toastmasters (who were the judges), but I already knew it wasn’t quite ideal for the International Speech Contest. However, I figured it was probably good enough to win at the club level.

My primary competitor was a 17-year veteran of Toastmasters, a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM). Her speech had those inspirational elements that mine didn’t, as well as some shock value (she kicked over a chair during her speech). However, she hadn’t had enough time to memorize her speech, so she used cue cards. On my side, I fumbled my intro slightly, although people told me afterwards that they hadn’t noticed, so I must have covered myself pretty smoothly. My speech was fully memorized, I used the floor effectively, and I’d had time to choreograph my gestures.

I think I would have won via straight-out judging. But it didn’t matter in the end, because my primary opponent went overtime and was disqualified.

The Evaluation Contest is a little different. It only extends up to the District level, which for District 29 is basically the Northern Virginia area outside of the Beltway that encircles Washington DC. In this contest, a model speaker, generally unknown to the contestants, delivers a 5-7 minute speech. Contestants take notes during the speech, then have 5 minutes to organize their thoughts. After that, their notes are taken from them, and they are sequestered in another room.

One by one, the contestants are brought out to give their 2-3 minute evaluation of the speech. They have 30 seconds of leeway on either side. Beyond that, they’ll be disqualified.

So, what do the judges look for? First, the evaluation is a speech, so they’re looking for a well-defined beginning, middle and, most importantly, a coherent summary. Second, they’re looking for completeness. Was the contestant able to identify things that the speaker did well, and things that the speaker could improve? Did the contestant frame the issues in a constructive manner? Third, they’re looking for solutions. It’s one thing to tell a speaker that they have a litany of problems, but it’s much more difficult to give them solutions, tactics that they can use to improve their speeches in the future. This is the hardest part of an evaluation, recommending actionable solutions for the speaker’s problems.

As it turned out, the originally scheduled model speaker didn’t show up. There was a visiting guest who previously exchanged several emails with club officers and wanted to join the club. So, she joined when she got there, assumed the role of model speaker, and gave her first speech all in the same night. The contestants knew nothing of what had gone behind the scenes, and had no idea that the model speaker was a first-time speaker.

This made the evaluations interesting, because her speech was basically a rambling monologue about taking charge of your own life, and various tactics to accomplish this. In my evaluation, I began by telling her that she was brave to come out and speak in front of a group of people she’d never met before, and that, whatever other problems her speech might have, she had the most critical thing…something worth saying.

I started with some basic corrections. Don’t tell us that you didn’t have any time to prepare your speech; if you don’t tell us, we might not notice. Don’t thank the audience at the end of a speech — you’re the one doing the hard work to prepare and deliver the speech, so the audience thanks you (that’s what applause is all about). Finally, I noted that her general speech problems were organizational in nature. I advised her to start with an outline, work on a more concrete intro and conclusion, and slow down to allow her major points to sink in.

I think I won partly because of the completeness of my criticisms, but most because I offered her solid, coherent solutions to transform her speech into something much more effective.

Overall, I was extremely happy with my two performances. I brought my A game and competed in both contests at the highest level of which I was capable. I’d have been happy with my performance even if I had lost (just because someone else gets the trophy, you never lose, in my humble opinion, if you’ve done your absolute best). Nevertheless, I was extremely pleased to come home with both trophies. Incidentally, it was my third time competing in the International Speech Contest, and only my first time competing in the Evaluation Contest.

The only downside after winning is that I’ll need to craft an entirely new, contest-caliber speech by the time I get to the March 22nd Area Contest.

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Toastmasters, a Tool for Writers

Tools for Writers: Toastmasters for training in communication and leadershipIf you’re a writer, I think you should consider joining Toastmasters. It’s one of the most effective tools you’ll find for honing the skills you’ll need as a professional writer. But, I hear you saying, Toastmasters is for improving public speaking, not writing. What’s it going to do for a writer?

Well, do you think speeches, especially good ones, just happen by accident? No, they’re written. Even better, you practice them in front of a live audience that’s been trained by Toastmasters to critique them effectively. So, you’re writing and you’re getting critiqued. By people who are serious about their analysis.

Additionally, have you considered that a significant part of a writer’s career involves marketing yourself and your stories? This has only become more important in today’s turbulent publishing industry. Traditional publishers are looking for writers that already have a “platform” — the poster child for this situation is John Scalzi, who was a well-known blogger and speaker before he became a published writer. And if you’re going the self-publishing route, it’s even more important to market yourself effectively.

Are you ready to be a panelist at a convention? Do you think you could handle being interviewed on video? Can you impress an audience with an effective reading of your own material? What about that one-minute elevator pitch for your novel?

Toastmasters can help you by:

  • Encouraging you to write.

  • Enforcing discipline on your writing. — Have you ever tried to write something complex and meaningful in 600 – 1200 words? That’s the typical length of a 5 – 7 minute Toastmasters talk. It’s hard, which makes it a great writing exercise.

  • Improving your public speaking. There’s far too many ways that this can be useful for your writing career to even list them here.

  • Boosting your confidence. Toastmasters is all about stretching your limits. When you learn how to do things effectively that you could never do before, you have no idea how uplifting and liberating that is.

I also make sure that I write down my best speeches. Many of them have become blog entries on this site (or on my technical blog, KeenerTech). The end result is that I have built up a varied selection of what I consider to be pretty good content. These talks span a wide range of topics, such as my personal musings about my technical career, inspirational talks, and intricate fables that exercise my storytelling capabilities. Some of these talks have been videotaped, so people can read or view my talks.

Here are the talks that I have available online (not counting the hardcore technical talks for software developers that are available on KeenerTech):

  1. The Match: This is what I consider to be my best talk. It’s a 9-minute historical story in second-person narrative. It’s also available as an online video.

  2. At the Crossroads: My Icebreaker, my first speech for Toastmasters in June 2010. It helped get me my current job, because the technologist who interviewed said “I knew exactly who you were” from the blog entry that I created from my talk.

  3. Islands in the Mind: An inspirational speech with a Toastmasters slant. Also aimed at writers, since one of the major threads is about a writer.

  4. Philosophy 101: An inspirational speech for the Ashburn Toastmasters Holiday Party (on video).

  5. The Finest Legacy: My 2012 speech for the International Speech Contest — which got me a 2nd place trophy in Area 45. This is the text of the speech, with a link to the video as well. It’s about my Dad, science fiction and the hidden impact of science fiction on the real world. I still get approached by people who remember this speech fondly.

  6. Going the Distance: A three-minute Area Governor speech for a club visit. Promotes Toastmasters contests.

  7. The Apple Falls Down: Perspectives on Global Warming: My 10th speech in the Competent Communicator manual, with both text and a link to the video. All about the perils of global warming.

If you’re a writer, try out Toastmasters. It’s one of the best tools available to you, and the membership cost is negligible (around $9 per month, but you can visit some meetings for free). You’ll be surprised at how much Toastmasters can help you with your writing career.

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