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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