Legend has it that 5-time World Championship of Public Speaking Finalist John Howard would start writing his next International Speech on the plane ride home. That's not actually a legend - his wife, one of my early mentors, Shirley Howard, told me that herself.
If you haven't started, and you are serious about the contest, then you're already behind. I admit, this might sound a bit dramatic, but hey, it's been 3 1/2 months since Dananjaya Hettiarachchi won the latest crown - what have you been doing!?
OK - enough hyperbole - but now is as good a time as any to start looking at the contest. Below is a checklist you might want to keep handy as you make your way through the competition for the first, or fifteenth, time:
- Eligibility - Are you a paid member? Have you given your first six speeches? Has your CLUB paid THEIR dues? Check out both your club status and your own on the Toastmasters.org website. I've heard many horror stories of people thrown out of the contest for lack of making sure all their ducs were in a row - even a District Winner or two who were DQ'd for the Semi's
- Contest Schedule - When and Where are all the levels of the contest? Are you free to compete on all those days? You can compete regardless, but if you are serious about advancing, clear your calendar, and for the higher levels, start planning your finances to get there and give your best speech.
'What Came First, The Story or The Point?' My best advice - figure out what you want to say, then focus on how you want to say it.
- Writing the Speech - yes, WRITE THE SPEECH. You might be able to win in your club with an off-the-cuff speech, but don't bet on moving on much further. Write it. Edit it. Edit it some more. Winning speeches are between 600 and 1000 words - my personal rule of thumb is 720 words or less, to account for pauses and laughter. Keep all versions of your speech - you might end up with 20 or more iterations. You never know when something from version 1.0 becomes fresh again two months later.
- Attire - Appearance is on the judging form. Is what you're wearing appropriate the speech, and to the event? Are you going casual because it's 'just' the Area Contest? I 'suit up' at every level past club, and depending on the club I'm competing in, I might wear a suit there too. Ladies, obviously you've got a lot more to worry about than us guys generally do - but a nice dress or pantsuit is going to work for you at most any level. For all genders, consider this: if you're equal to your competition on every other spot on the judging form, your outfit could put you over the top, or under the ground.
- Prepare to Lose, or to Win - essentially, be prepared to Win Anyway. I have won contests I should have lost, and lost contests I should have won, most likely. Of course, you want to go in confident, with the feeling that you're going to give your best speech, and that victory is possible, or even likely. But remember, you don't control all the variables, you only control yourself. Win with grace, lose with grace. As someone who is forever on celluloid seen mouthing a swear word when his name wasn't called, please just trust me on this one.
- Video/Audio - record EVERYTHING. Video preferably, audio if necessary. It doesn't have to be high quality - it just needs to be enough for you to be able to review it - and you MUST review it. I hate watching my videos. It's painful. The rewards of knowing what you look and sound like, however, balance out the pain. (Besides, after you win it all, just think of the product you can make with those old recordings!)
- Practicing at Toastmasters Clubs - a very common practice these days, even by folks who've only won their club level. You want feedback, and that's great. Be careful how you take the feedback, and what you do with the feedback. At the end of the day, you're the one who has to give the speech. I've heard many who've done the 'club tour' say they wouldn't do it again, that it can be overwhelming, and even paralyzing. Personally, I don't practice outside my club during the first four levels - club to district. I want the speech to remain fresh in my mind, the judges mind, and the audiences mind. So consider the pros and cons in your approach, and choose your clubs, and your feedback, wisely.
- Who's the Competition? - I'm known for knowing my competition - attending the competitions so that I won't be surprised by any of the speeches I'll be facing. I try to keep a low profile, but I'll also step in as a timer or a vote-counter if they are struggling for volunteers. Of course, just because you see a speech at Area doesn't mean they'll give the same one at Division, so you can't ever try to write your speech 'against' someone else's, and the competition is usually so diverse that that approach would be like chasing rabbits. You don't need to know your competition, and most contestants I've met don't really 'scope out' the competition. Do what makes YOU comfortable.
- Know the Venue, and the Viewers - show up early! Even if you've competed in the exact room before, it may be set up differently. Know what to expect sound-wise. Walk the stage. Give your speech to an empty room if you're the first one there. When people come in, greet them. Don't tell them you're a contestant, just talk to them, take an interest in them. Be real, and connect. It's a lot easier competing in front of an audience of friends than an audience of strangers. (Another reason, by the way, to go to the other competition - to meet more people you don't know that you'll want to know later on.)
- Coaching - it wasn't that long ago I heard debates about whether coaching was even ethical in this competition. That has died down quite a bit over the last decade, and most, if not all, serious competitors have a coach, or even a coaching TEAM.
Finding a coach isn't that hard - there are plenty of people in your District, heck, maybe in your club, that can help you. Past Champions are often available to coach you (prices may vary). Even past competitors, like Dilip Abayasakera and Maureen Zappala coach contestants. Of course, I do as well.
If you choose to pursue a more formal coaching agreement, make sure expectations are set, that personalities mesh, and that the coach has something to offer that you might find yourself a bit concerned about on your own - be it humor, stage presence, or storytelling.
A Final Word
Just like Toastmasters itself, you'll usually get as much out of the contests as you put in, in terms of growth, energy, and joy. If you go in only for the gold (or acrylic) trophy, you'll likely come home with nothing but disappointment in the long run, and even risk becoming bitter and resentful towards an organization that works to uplift and support all involved. I've watched it happen - people blame the judges, the venue, the audience - anything but themselves in this contest. I've done it myself.
Compete for yourself - for growth, for experience, for FUN - and you'll get that regardless of how the judges rank you. Yes, you always want to strive for the best when you Speak & Deliver, but when all is said and done, prepare to Win, and Win Anyway!
Bonus Video - Dananjaya's speech, if you haven't seen it yet.....