Toastmasters: Lessons from the International Speech Contest

As I watched the International Speech Contest at the 2010 Toastmasters International Convention, I noticed a few things that, in my opinion, truly contributed to the best speaker being recognized as the World Champion.

First, without a doubt is have a message. This may be a no-brainer, but in two years of watching the finals and three years watching regional/semi-final contests I have seen some speakers miss this one all together. You may ask, how do they miss something so critical? Good question. It’s simple, they only think they have a message. You have to, have to, HAVE TO be sure that the audience will walk away with your message, and better yet with it worded the way you meant it. See Craig Valentine’s work on Foundational Phrases – No Phrase, No Stage.

Tell your own, compelling story. It has to support the message, and in my experience the strongest messages are the ones learned from someone else, like a parent or sibling.  In David Henderson’s speech, The Aviator, his lesson “losing people is a part of loving people” came from a powerful discussion with his mother. His use of dialog was strong, and it helped us relive those moments with him.

Use humor appropriately. David’s speech had a very serious message. However, he was able to light up the room with parts of his story about how he and his friend would play together. As I remember it, they “flew over a bazillion missions together without any casualties.” In Robert Mackenzie’s speech, My Alter Ego, there were a number of well placed lines that fit right into the speech. A crowd favorite was, “By 30 I had said ‘no’ more times than Toyota said ‘recall’.”

Set the stage with grand and normal gestures. David took us back to a time when he and his friend, at age 7, used to play aviator together. He did this twice by extending his arms and making airplane (and shooting) noises to simulate the event. Robert did this by showing us the size and place for his invisible alter-ego, and then taking us back to that spot on the stage when he needed to, including simulating a door to go inside and shut himself in.

Of course, giving a championship-quality speech is more than checking off a few boxes of “must-do’s”. But if you are missing any of these elements in your speech, don’t be shocked if your name doesn’t get called.

Another thing – be sure to practice (duh), but don’t overdo it on soliciting feedback. Use Ideas #1 and #2 in my advaced suggestion post, and get feedback each time you practice. Have someone you respect and trust write you a manual speech evaluation each time you practice, and ignore all the verbal minutia you get from the rest of the room. Of course, you’ll want to get some professional-quality coaching as well.

Note: Updated in 2016. Take a look at Jim Key’s site,  Darren LaCroix’s site, Lance Miller’s site, Ed Tate’s site, or Craig Valentine’s site. There is quite a bit of free material on these sites, as well as advanced programs where you can learn even more. Another great option is Rich Hopkins, a WCPS finalist and popular speech coach.

Good luck, and don’t wait too long to get started. Next year will be here any minute…

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