Monday, March 30, 2015

March Madness and the World Championship of Public Speaking

I just finished sweeping my Area Contest last Friday night, both Table Topics and International Speech, as I make yet another run at a third District Trophy in Topics, and hopefully, finally, a 1st place trophy at the World Championship of Public Speaking (WCPS).

Similarly (or not), Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Michigan State all won their Elite Eight games to send them into next weekends Final Four in the NCAA Basketball National (USA) Championships, where one of them will end up winning it all, and be considered the best team in the country, out of a couple hundred overall, and 68 who ended up in the tournament, commonly referred to as March Madness.

They say that between 30,000 and 40,000 contestants start at the club level, and average of roughly 2.7 per club (15,543), which is where we get the statistic oft used in marketing the WCPS - best out 35,000 speakers worldwide. Once you get past club, you'll compete in one of 3277 Areas, 712 Divisions, and 97 Districts (thanks George Marshall for running these stats down), meaning at any various level you can say you're in top 10 percent of competitive TM speakers after winning Area, the top 2 percent after Division, the top two hundredths percent (I think that's how one would say it - .00277) after District, and so on....whether you win the Final or not. Not bad, right?

Both March Madness and the WCPS have six rounds, though it can have seven, if, in basketball, you end up in a 'play-in' game, of which there are four, or in the Int'l Contest, if you're in a large district that has a run-off after the Division level. But basically, the best team plays six others teams out of the 68 to claim their title - in a seeded tournament, with the 'best' ranked teams facing off with the worst - one seeds down to sixteen seeds.

The World Champion goes through Club, Area, Division, District, the Semi-Finals, and the Finals. During that run, the Champ will face anywhere from no competition to 5 competitors at the average club and Area contest - so let's be optimistic and say 10 total (your mileage may vary). At Division, I've seen as few as two contestants, as many as 8, so lets be optimistic again and say 5, and most districts have between 4 and 10 competitors, again we'll go with 8 as a high average. The semi's feature 9-10 competitors, the Finals, nine.

OK math majors, that means the World Champion actually faces, in direct competition, around 39 other speakers, with gusts up to 50. We won't even go into the fact that all these speakers are Toastmasters, leaving out the vast world of professional speakers who typically aren't members of TM, much less interested in competing for a trophy they don't 'need'.

Surely, though, these are 50 of the best speakers Toastmasters has to offer, right? Well, it depends. The path for some of the best speakers can end early, if two (or more) top-notch competitors face off too early. I knew a WCPS finalist who lost the next year, at club, to someone else who then went to the Finals for the SECOND time in her career. So the equivalent of two #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament faced off in ROUND ONE! This can happen at any round, and who knows if all the speakers in, say North Carolina are better than all the speakers here in Colorado.

When I compete at Division on the 11th, I'll be facing the fall District Humorous Champion - meaning the two of us hold the last two speaking trophies in District 26, and neither one of us is guaranteed to even PLACE. Will we suddenly fall of the the map as quality speakers?

Additionally, in any given year, a large number of top-notch speakers aren't even competing, as they've taken a year off either in leadership roles, or just to rest awhile.

So, if you can be a World Champion after facing as few as, perhaps, 30-50 other speakers, is there true value in the title?

Elsa/Getty Images

Considering I've been going after this title since 2001, I really have no choice but to say YES. Just as one of the four teams in the NCAA Tourney will eventually be considered the best, even if it's Michigan State, with 11 losses, who gets hot at the right time.

Contestants can only compete with those put before them, after all. They aren't responsible for the format, just as the basketball teams can't always control their seeding in the tournament, or who they will play from round to round. The speech contest is equally unpredictable, thanks to the diversity of judges, and the randomness of speeches created from talented speakers throughout the organization.

And the pressure - oh the pressure. Whether you're facing an audience of 10 at club, or 2000 at the finals, the one loss and you're done nature (in most cases, though some Clubs, Areas, and Divisions send the top two) of the event puts the pressure on.

Craig Valentine, 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking
Winning the championship of public speaking, much like winning any contest, takes a unique combination of talent, performance, and plain old luck. Whether you win on your first try, a la Craig Valentine and Ryan Avery, or after several false starts, like Lance Miller, or several close shaves, such as Jim Key, Mark Hunter, and of course, the King of also-rans, Jock Elliott, who won on his record sixth try in the Finals, you're a champion. You're a great speaker, with a marketable title who has achieved something that, by design, only one person per year can achieve.

Does it mean you're the best? Maybe. Maybe not. It does mean you're a champion - and the truest champions always get better, and usually faster than non-champions. After all, now everyone expects them to be the BEST of the best, not just 'pretty good'. Craig Valentine famously said that the first thing he did after winning the championship in 1999 was to go buy a book on speaking. Good move, I'd say.

Am I trying to run down the credibility of the champs, or the contest? No, not by any means. I still want to win this thing some day before I die. But I am saying that if you don't win, that if you NEVER win, such as John Howard, 5x finalist who died as he went up the leadership ranks, just before he was to take on the Int'l President role, it doesn't mean you aren't a great speaker. If I'm counting right (he says he doesn't remember), J.A. Gamache has gone to the Semi-Finals 8 times, the Finals twice, but hasn't won. He's still a great speaker, right? Rory Vaden? Twice in the Finals, took 2nd in 2007 - seems to be doing fairly well.

It may mean you aren't a CHAMPION, and that you didn't WIN. But as I like to say - WIN ANYWAY. Find your own victories outside of the trophies. Be a champion to your audiences that aren't awarding you little plastic trophies - that's where the victories truly await.

Speaking isn't about Championships, and neither is basketball. They're both about developing skills, promoting emotional (and physical) growth, and sportsmanship. Go Speak & Deliver - and Go Wildcats :)

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