Toastmasters: Why you won’t win your contest


Have you been practicing? Working on your contest speech? Did you manage to win your club, area or division contest? You probably did it one of two ways. Either you are beyond awesome, which means you aren’t even bothering to read this anyway, or you did it despite a few minor imperfections. If you were the only contestant, let’s say, for argument, that you are both awesome and flawed, but you want to be sure.

Only one person will win at the next contest you are in. The rest will certainly not win, and that could be you. These are the strongest reasons why you won’t win:

You want to win a contest. This means your focus is in the wrong place. Just like in any presentation that you want to give successfully, contest speeches have to reach your audience. Focus on them. Even in longer presentations you have to capture their attention and interest quickly. But, in contest speeches you also have to reach them with your message and wrap it up quickly. Time is the only real difference in contest speaking.

Your message sucks. When you reach your audience, you need to leave them with something they’ll remember. Be explicit. If you think that you are so good that they’ll get it from the story, you lose. And yes, it’s that simple. Be explicit. That means have a phrase they can walk out of the room with – 7 words or less. Explicit. As 1999 champ Craig Valentine says – No Phrase, No Stage. Note: I’ve seen this done at every level of Toastmasters contests. At district and above, it’s a one-in-a-million shot to win (or even place) with a crappy/unclear message.

You have no story. Or worse, you have 3 main points. In 5-7 minutes. No. One point (see message above) and best is one story to support that one message. It works to have a sub story or two – nothing too complicated – to support the main story.

You aren’t checking in. Keep your audience involved. Ask a few questions, even rhetorical ones. Get it? Another example: you just finished a piece about that time where your girlfriend said “it’s over”. You might ask the audience, “have you ever had your heart broken?”

You are making assumptions. “We all…” haven’t done anything you can count on, except breathe. Don’t tell your audience why you are like (similar to) them. Ask them if they are like you.

You aren’t funny, or you are too funny. Balance. If they are laughing throughout the speech, save it for the humorous speech contest. If they don’t laugh at all, you lose.

You are standing still. Use the stage (or whatever space you are given) to build a scene. Be deliberate. Practice your staging. Pacing is only slightly better than standing still (i.e. you still lose).

It’s all about you. Don’t preach to your audience about why you know they shouldn’t smoke, drink or whatever. Show them (see story, above) how you learned that lesson and how they can apply it if they want to.

You aren’t taking advantage of feedback. Don’t assume that someone will be or won’t be able to help you just because they are another contestant, a District Officer or not in Toastmasters. None of those factors prove anything.
1. Give your speech wherever/whenever you can. Don’t use all of the feedback you get, but some of it will be helpful.
2. At the contest, seek feedback in advance. Hand your CC manual to a non-judge and ask them to evaluate you (projects 2-6 are best). Don’t concentrate on just one area (i.e. vocal variety) but look at the feedback after the contest. If you come to me after the contest and ask, “any feedback?” without telling me up front to pay attention, then you are just one of the many speakers I watched. Sure, I noticed something. But it isn’t the same. If you want me to give you real feedback, tell me before you speak.
3. Record yourself…and watch…and listen.

You aren’t getting good coaching. Get the best coaching you can afford. Can I help you? Yes. Can others help you? Yes. Are there previous World Champs that can help even more? Yes.

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.

These are some of the best options to getting help. Personal coaching will cost more. Caveat: Other Toastmasters may be willing to mentor (help) you just because you ask. Don’t expect 24/7 access, but there is a lot of experience, expertise and talent out there.

You are still reading this post. Stop reading and get to work!


  1. Great post Rob – all good points.

    While all contestants may not come home with a trophy, if they follow your advice, they will all end up winners. As I’ve said before – Life’s not always fair.

  2. Rob,
    I’m so glad I discovered you. Not only is this article above full of insite, but as I didn’t manage to attend one educational at the convention I am so pleased to be able to read about them in such detail on your site.
    thank you,
    The DQ woman finalist!

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