Article Category: Speech Contests

Lessons Learned from Toastmasters Speech Contests

Toastmasters Evaluation Contest Champion - District 21

Speech contests are your fastest route to your greatest improvement.
David Brooks, 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking

This past weekend, I won the Toastmasters District 21 Speech Evaluation Contest and placed third in the District 21 International Speech Contest.

The accolades are very nice, but they are fleeting in nature. On the other hand, the breadth and depth of lessons learned during these speech contests are long-lasting.

This article highlights just a few of these valuable lessons which apply to all speakers, whether novice or professional.

Note: Toastmasters contests begin at the club level. Winners then proceed through area, division, and district contests. The International Speech Contest continues through regional and world levels. LaShunda Rundles (2008 World Champion of Public Speaking) shares her lessons learned at those levels.

International Speech Contest – 2006

I entered the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 2006, and was excited to win my club contest and then the area contest. I was pretty happy with this result, particularly considering I beat an experienced competitor who placed second. The top two contestants moved on to the next level.

Happiness morphed into being content and overconfident. I strolled into the contest at the division level and I delivered the exact same speech. The competitor who finished second last time improved his speech considerably. This time, he won and I placed second. He went to district, and I was eliminated.

  • Key Lesson — Never get comfortable. Never be content. Capitalize on every opportunity to improve your skills and refine your speeches.

Evaluation and Table Topics Contests – 2007

In both cases, I scraped my way through club, area, and division contests and earned passage to the district contest.

At the district contest, I was confident but not overly so. I prepared as much as possible despite the fact that neither of these contests involve prepared speeches.

I delivered a solid, respectable, safe speech in both cases. In both cases, I was beaten by a contestant who was not only just as strong, but also was much more memorable.

  • Key Lesson — Incorporate a truly memorable element in every presentation you give. Your audience will remember it, they’ll remember your message, and they’ll remember you. It is this quality which separates you from your peers.

Humorous Speech Contest – 2007

This was my first time competing in the Humorous Speech Contest. Before choosing my topic, I studied district speeches from previous years.

I wrote a speech which I felt could win the district contest based on my audience analysis. The subject for my humorous speech was Toastmasters itself. The audience would consist of 250 dedicated Toastmasters members attending a conference; I felt my speech would be received well.

The problem was that I didn’t make it to the district contest. I finished 3rd in the division contest where the audience was much smaller. More importantly, the demographics of the audience were different than the one for which I prepared.

  • Key Lesson — Every audience is different. Even if you recycle much of your content, insert elements which reflect the unique audience characteristics.

International Speech Contest – 2008

I survived the club, area, and division contests over very tough competition. I advanced to the district competition for the second time. (I previously detailed my first trip in 2007 in the Speech Preparation Series.)

The district contest briefing was held about 5 hours before the contest. During this briefing, we learned the height of the “stage” was only about 2 inches. The audience for this contest was large (about 300 people) and spread around tables in a hotel banquet hall. The consequence of this setup was that contestants were not visible from the chest and below to audience members beyond the front row.

Three contestants featured either sitting in a chair or crouching beside a chair for part of their speech. At these times, they were completely invisible to the audience, and I believe this considerably diminished the effectiveness of their choreographed actions.

  • Key Lesson: Adapt to your surroundings. If the room setup is such that your planned speech will suffer, then improvise. If you don’t, the audience cannot see you. If they cannot see you, it will be much, much harder to connect with them.

Evaluation Speech Contest – 2008

This was the third consecutive year that I reached the District 21 Evaluation Contest: eleven contests before this past weekend, and I had won 9 of them. I had not, however, taken the top prize at district level in previous years.

Instead of being content with last year’s second place district performance, I worked hard to hone my skills. I developed a speech evaluation workshop which helped me reflect on my strengths and weaknesses. The speech critiques on this blog allowed me to exercise my speech analysis muscles.

The competition was very strong. When first place was announced, my name was called!

  • Key Lesson: You can always improve. Work on your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Hard work and persistence pays off.

As David Brooks predicted, speech contests have been the fastest route to the greatest improvement for me. I encourage you compete in speech contests whenever you can, and reap the tremendous benefits.

Your Lessons Learned?

Have you entered speech contests? What have you learned from these experiences?

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Comments icon9 Comments

  1. Congratulations, Andrew!

  2. John Watkis says:

    Congratulations, Andrew! Hopefully you recorded your the speech so you can put a clip on your blog.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Hi John:
      The speech was recorded by the official videographer, but I don’t have a copy yet. I’m looking forward to seeing my performance as well as all the others again.

  3. Hi Andrew: Just back from our District finals. Big well done on winning.

    Just a thought. It may be different in different geographies but I have certainly noticed that here in the UK, speeches about TM tend not to make it past Area. Not sure why but maybe the audiences just feel it is a little obvious.

    Keep up the great work,


  4. James Wells says:

    Congrats again Andrew. I really like this site! My journey to the District Finals, and ultimately a 2nd place finish in 2008 was more than I ever planned for. Biggest things I learned was: 300 people is more than your average toastmasters group of 20, and that they react much differently and that I GOT ALOT MORE NERVOUS. I also noticed that my onstage performance was MUCH more emotional than in the past. After some reflection I found that an increase in nervous energy, actually translated into more emotional (more enthusiasim with my gestures, and more emotion in my voice) energy. Which seemed to work out! The other lesson (echoing Andrew), is that my final performance was actually the first time I had incorporated a few actions and lines, meaning, it was constantly improved right to the very end (this keeps it fresh). It begs the question, are good speeches ever complete?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      You owned the stage. A 2nd place finish from the #1 slot out of 10 contestants is a remarkable accomplishment. I look forward to seeing your speech again on video and learning from your techniques.

  5. I agree that contests can help you prepare to go pro, but that is because of a combination of practicing the same speech, getting in front of new audiences, and most importantly, being coached. I think that may be what propels most people into being a professional.

  6. I enjoyed this article and learned a lot. I’m planning to enter my first contest and was searching the internet for lessons learned. Your article hit the nail on the head. Thank you for sharing your hard earned lessons.

  7. Natalia Strelkova says:

    This is Natalia Strelkova. I just discovered your blog. Oh, my! What a wonderful source of information! I have never been into blogging, but this one is my everyday reading now as it contains tremendous depths of knowledge.
    Now I realized what a privilege it had been to have you as the Chief Judge at the humorous speech contest in Division B! I am very remorseful that I didn’t discover your blog before my participation in the contest. I could have done much better (may be).
    Participation in the speech contest opened my eyes and taught me lessons I didn’t expect to learn from this experience. One of the lessons I have learned minutes before the District contest was to be prepared for different reaction from different audience. They may not laugh at the jokes other audiences laughed, but this should not throw you off the track, continue with your speech and don’t loose the enthusiasm. I really appreciate the Toastmaster who gave me this bit of wisdom.

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