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Toastmasters Speech Competitions Are Not the Best Way to Measure Your Speaking Success

Toastmasters Speech Competitions Are Not the Best Way to Measure Your Speaking Success

A couple of days ago, I raved about having a female winner for the International Speech Contest held by Toastmasters International. This competition is akin to the Olympics of public speaking. Anyhow, one of the readers (Simon from UK) commented that “a Toastmasters competition is not the best way to measure skills as a public speaker…” and he sees “competitions as a bit too artificial to give a decent idea”.

Nonetheless, our conversation triggered a question – Can a winning speech be considered an excellent speech?

With the recent win by LaShunda Rundles, people all around the world are raving about her, judging from the number of times she gets mentioned in blogs and websites. For people who haven’t heard her speaker, we would be curious about what she spoke about that got her that win. What’s her message? How did she deliver it? What techniques did she use? Who was her coach? And etc.

However, is her winning speech a model of an excellent speech? Now, that’s a tough question.

What makes a winning speech is fairly subjective. Not only does it depend on a set of judging criteria, it also depends on the judges that day and the other contest speeches.

Take for example the District International Speech Contest held in Delaware, US in 2005, organized by the Toastmasters International. Five of the eight speakers had messages that revolved around death! At first, the stories shared were rather touching and the first two speakers managed to move the audience. However, when the other three speakers continued speaking about death, it totally spoilt the mood. All of a sudden, the audience felt manipulated. It didn’t help that the timekeeper that day was donning the attire of a Grim Reaper! Not surprisingly, the three speakers who won that day were those who avoided the topic of death. And mind you, they weren’t the best!

Having said that, let me share with you a secret on how Darren La Croix, 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking, beat 11 other world-class speakers that year.

It is best explained by telling you how his winning speech came about. A couple of months before the contest, Darren went to his speech coach, Mark Brown (1995 World Champion of Public Speaking) for some assistance. He was not sure what to speak on and his coach gave him one assignment.

“If you have only one day left to live, what is one lesson that you have personally learnt in your life, which you want to pass on to your children?”

For those of you without any children, replace that with your loved ones, or even the world if you like.

Darren had two days to list them all down. You see, if you were to think on the spot, you may come up with the obvious few. However, this may not be the most heartfelt or authentic ones. Remember the importance of speaking from the heart? As he glanced through all the possible topics, one stood out.

“I became a comedian because I was willing to fail…”

And Darren ran with that topic.

The next assignment was to find stories that related to his message. Again, if you were to just take whatever comes to mind first, you will put yourself in the league of the ordinary. Stories on Thomas Edison or Abraham Lincoln were way too common and predictable. Instead, Darren chose a character that was listed at the bottom of page four – Dr Robert Gardner, the man who invented the first rocket.

The lesson is simple. When you speak on a topic that you can relate to; that has the most significance on your life, that when shared, will create the greatest impact on your listeners, you will effortlessly win your audience over. That is also how you can create a winning speech.

Now let me answer the second part of the question. Can a winning speech be considered an excellent speech? Again, excellence is subjective. It also depends on whose benchmark you use to judge the speech’s excellence.

In my opinion, a winning speech is NOT an excellent speech because the people judging your speech may not have an eye for excellence. In addition, when you win a speech, it may be because your competitors are weak! Hence, even if you win several speech competitions, you are not necessarily good.

At this point of time, some of you may be asking us “If that is the case, how can one measure his speaking success?”

On top of the speaking accolades you win, there are two other ways to measure your speaking success. Interestingly these two ways are often overlooked.

1. Personal Growth

Your success can also be measured by how much you have grown from giving the speech. There are some types of speeches that you are not comfortable delivering (e.g. humor speeches), and you made an attempt, that’s personal growth… as long as you learnt something from your act of courage. It can come in the form of realizing that you do have a knack for humor or discovering some techniques that did not work very well for you.

Growth could also come in the form of speaking to an audience that you are not used to. For example, large size or higher seniority, or speaking in a style that you are normally not used to.

Take myself for example. My default mode is high energy, always smiling and positive. That works very well for me, especially if I want the participants to warm up to me. However, I realized that this style doesn’t work if I were to coach a bunch of adults who are not producing results. Being nice only gives them the permission to take advantage of me. This is when my tough side needs to show.

2. Create Value For Your Audience

Interestingly, “creating value for audience” is a favorite measure of success for many champion speakers, including Darren La Croix (2001) and Jim Key (2003).

“Champion speakers do not aspire to get a wow. We aspire to get the audience to do something for themselves, or to think differently about your subject or themselves when we are done. You need to think the same way. You cannot worry about what the audience thinks of you…that is an amateurish way of thinking. Think bigger. What will they ‘do’ as a result of you speaking… makes sense?” – Darren La Croix

Furthermore the audience has given you the gift of time and attention, so it is only fair to return them something valuable. Value could come in the form of what the audience wants. For example, to de-stress after a long day at work. Hence a speech peppered with funny anecdotes would be much appreciated. Alternatively, if they are here to learn, then make sure that your audience walks away with useful pointers that they can apply immediately to areas of their concern. Remember, under-promise but over-deliver! Or, maybe what your audience needs is to be challenged and inspired to grow. You can write a speech that bestows them with such opportunities!

The next speech competition is coming near… we have the Humorous Contest, Evaluation Contest (in Singapore) and Table Topics Contest (in US). I suggest you take the opportunity to clock your stage and remember, winning is only one way of measuring your speaking success.