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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The Finest Legacy

On March 3, 2012, I had the opportunity to participate in the Area 45 Speech Contest for Toastmasters District 29. This speech took the 2nd-place trophy in the competition. I was fortunate enough to have Anthony DiPalma videotaping the talk for me. Since both of us lead very busy lives, it wasn’t until a few days ago that I received the video, and I’m currently in the process of getting it online. A transcript of the award-winning talk appears below.

Editorial Note: The video is now online. See Part 2 for the video.

The Finest Legacy

I’ve been a science fiction fan for almost as long as I can remember. And when I tell people I’m a science fiction fan, I usually get reactions like:



“What do you see in science fiction?”

And it’s kind of disturbed me over time that people kind of look down on something that I love so much.

So what I’ve decided to do today is share with you how I became a science fiction fan, and maybe along the way, show you a few things that I find really fascinating about this field of literature.

I was infected by my Dad.

As a little kid, my Dad used to carry these science fiction books around all the time. Usually in his back pocket. And they had such interesting book covers.

I can remember a picture of a hero flying around on dragon-back through the skies of some other world. I can remember another one that had a military commander that looked like he had the weight of the universe on his shoulders. And he was standing there looking out this floor-length window as vast space fleets clashed in the darkness beyond Orion.

As a little kid looking at these book covers, how could you not read these books?

So I found myself going through my Dad’s book collection, reading everything that could possibly look like it would be of interest to somebody my age.

Of course, I ran into my first problem with that. Which was…my Dad was not one of those real organized people. And so, we had books everywhere.

They were stacked up in closets. They were piled up in the basement. They were pushed under the bed.

And so…I think I was age 11…I decided one day that things needed to be organized.

So, if you can imagine an 11-year-old spending the next twelve hours or so organizing my Dad’s book collection. Thousands of books.

I grabbed some scrap lumber. I built some book shelves in the basement. I grabbed every book that I could find in the entire household. At least, all the science fiction ones. I didn’t care about those romances my mother was reading.

And I alphabetized them, like the burgeoning Type-A personality that I was.

When my Dad came home that night, I proudly told him that I was the curator of his science fiction collection, and that we now had rules for how books should be treated.

He was no longer to carry books in the back pocket because sometimes he would sit on them and break the spines. And also, point number two, he was no longer allowed to fold back the corners of pages to use as impromptu bookmarks.

Now, my Dad kind of looked at me, strange little child that I was, and kind of went with it because, while I might have been an annoying little kid, I had actually organized his collection. And it was a lot easier for him to find his books as well.

And now that things were organized, it was a lot easier for me to find the books I really wanted to find. The next book by that great author. Or the second book in a series. So I really started to go through that collection at a high rate of speed.

And I began to notice things about science fiction.

One of the things I noticed is that the books that resonated with me the most seemed to follow certain rules.

So, it goes kind of like this. In science, you propose a theory, and then you conduct experiments to test that theory, and to prove it or disprove it. In science fiction, the way it works, an author asks you to give him certain assumptions that are required in order to make his story possible. Once you’ve given him those prerequisites, everything in a science fiction story should flow directly and consistently from those initial prerequisites.

Jurassic Park - by Michael CrichtonLet me give you an example. How many people here have seen the movie, Jurassic Park? Or read the book?

The only assumption that is required in order to make that story possible is for it to be possible to retrieve dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber 65 million years ago.

If you have dinosaur DNA, it’s conceivable that you can take that DNA and clone a dinosaur. If you can clone a dinosaur, then you can populate a park with them. And if you can do that, they can escape and eat people.

And you have a story.

So, science fiction follows rules.

And then I noticed other things about science fiction. For example, take somebody like Jules Verne. In 1865, he wrote a pair of novels popularizing space travel. “From the Eath to the Moon” and the sequel called “Around the Moon.” In these stories, a group of explorers go to Florida and they launch a spaceship into orbit using a giant cannon.

From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon - by Jules VerneOK. The science is a little wonky. But they had to deal with real problems like lack of air in space and zero gravity.

So here’s Jules Verne in 1865 writing stories that, I believe, influenced a generation of people who helped lay the groundwork for the technologies that would be necessary to send Neal Armstrong to the moon 104 years later.

Something else I noticed about science fiction…

Science fiction could be used like a lens to focus attention on major issues that might be harder to address in conventional fiction.

Take “War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells. Look at it once — it’s kind of an outdated historical piece of fiction. Look at it again and it’s a brutal commentary on British colonialism.

So, science fiction follows rules, can influence and inspire people, can tackle the major issues…I’m not sure what you look for in fiction, but that pretty much works for me.

From my perspective, I hope that I’ve given you a few things to think about when it comes to science fiction.

As for me, I have flown on dragon-back through the skies of another world, and I’ve watched vast space fleets clashing in the darkness beyond Orion. The finest legacy my father left me before he died was a love and appreciation for science fiction.

Thank you.

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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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