What Makes A Champion
Snapshots from the World Championship of Public Speaking - 2015
Perhaps no art form is as deeply transformatory for the performer and the audience as motivational speaking.
Little wonder then that there is always a huge buzz within the Toastmasters world when it comes time, annually, to select and crown the newest World Champion of Public Speaking. In this year-long duel, 35,000 contestants from 14,650 Clubs in 126 countries vie to be the last one standing after 6 rounds of grueling competition.
There has to be something intoxicating and awe-inspiring in just the title at stake: World Champion of Public Speaking! Or perhaps, these contestants dream of stepping into the big shoes of their idols, former Champions, who have gone on to achieve even greater glory after being crowned. After all, the performances and stories of many Champs have become the stuff of legend. Mark Hunter (2009) won from a wheel-chair. Dana LaMon (1992) was blind. Craig Valentine (1999) grew up with a pronounced lisp and is one of the world’s top speech coaches today.
In the past few years, as new Toastmasters Clubs and growth have burgeoned outside North America, primarily in Asia, there has been a growing number of contestants and contenders whose mother tongue is not English. This trend has resulted in many contestants, even Champions, speaking with distinct accents and imperfect grammar, pronunciation, diction and enunciation. Going by the results though, it’s apparent that Judges and the audience still believe that content and delivery are King.
As I watched this year’s Finals in Las Vegas, I was struck by the fact that all ten contestants were men. Yes, again! Half of them were from Asia, including the Top 3. Only 3 speakers had a recurring foundational phrase (such as “I See Something In You” so memorably used by the 2014 Champion, Dananjaya Hettiarachchi). A majority did not tell a formulaic Before and After personal story. And most strikingly, some speakers spoke to persuade rather than to inspire.
As a contest buff, student and teacher of the craft, I have observed that first-rate contest speeches usually contain the following “essentials” or checklist:
1. a single, simple uplifting message centered on a universal truth
2. personal story of despair and reinvention with sharing of lesson(s) learned
3. a foundational phrase: a recurring, memorable catch-phrase that speaks to the message
5. connection with audience
6. emotional/reflection pieces and A-ha moment(s)
7. audience-focused language and
8. selling of the result - or applying the message - and the call-to-action
Just as the 8th contestant is about step on stage, the person flanking me asks me who my Top 3 choices are. On a complete lark and half in jest, I say “The 3 contestants we have yet to see”. For once, I got it right!
Contestant # 8 is Aditya Maheswaran from India with his speech “Scratch”. Still very young, he had already competed in the 2014 Semi Finals in Kuala Lumpur. His youth and exuberance are apparent from the outset. He grins nervously as the Contest Chair mangles the pronunciation of his surname but he wastes no time demonstrating the essentials: a personal story about misplaced priorities; how he gets upset when his new car gets scratched, and off-loads his frustration on others especially his girlfriend and his mother.
He learns his lesson only when the unlikely guru, a mechanic that easily fixes the scratch on the car tells him “a scratch stays only as long you don’t polish it”. As the penny drops, he gives his mother a hug, gets two back in return and by showing contrition and remorse, wins his girl back. Clearly he has entertained and regaled the audience with his simple, sweet and sincere story and message of mindfulness.
Contestant # 9 is Manoj Vasudevan of India/Singapore. His speech title and foundational phrase is “We Can Fix It”. Déjà vu! His speech is also about new love, pain and redemption. He too stays true to the essentials. The audience instantly warms up to him when he clarifies to much amusement that regardless of the commonalities with Aditya’s speech, his girlfriend’s name is not the same (as Aditya’s girlfriend). This spontaneous use of the call-back technique is as impressive as it is effective. Using the metaphor of how a bow and arrow works in tandem for a common cause, he cleverly and pictorially summarizes his point: by pulling less and bending more, you can “fix” any relationship problems.
Manoj’s message of tolerance and flexibility in a relationship and his inter-action with the audience makes him too a solid contender.
The final contestant is Mohammed Qahtani from Saudi Arabia. Aditya and Manoj have set the perfect stage for him. The audience is feeling rewarded and entertained by their light, romantic stories of personal reinvention. Will Mohammed deliver even more or has the new Champion already been minted?
What happens next may go down in Toastmasters history as one of the most memorable openings ever witnessed on the Finals stage. Nonchalantly Mohammed starts his speech by looking down and pretends to light a cigarette. By doing so, he cleverly manages to get the audience to say the first word in unity: “No”. As soon as he looks up and asks incredulously “What?” the house erupts with bellows of laughter. Mohammed has likely won the title with his first word. The Crown is his to lose. And he does not disappoint with his speech The Power of Words. Watch this opening clip and judge for yourself:
In addition to this seminal opening, Mohammed charms the audience with classic facial expressions matched perfectly with tongue-in-cheek humor, carefully timed pauses and impressive mimicry.
Although the narrative depth of his stories and his articulation were perhaps a drag on his scores, there is no arguing that he delivered his applause lines with theatrical dexterity and from the get-go, had the audience in the palm of his hand.
All three contestants are in the hunt for the big trophy. Ultimately the Judges pick Mohammed, Aditya and Manoj in that order. To the extent there was any doubt on that outcome, what happens next makes the Judges look even more golden and Mohammed a compelling choice as a worthy champion.
In his acceptance speech, Mohammed reveals that he was born mute and spoke his first words only at age 6. Think about this! A person born mute becomes the World Champion of Public Speaking by speaking about the Power of Words! And even more commendable, he never taps into the sympathy vote by disclosing this background in his speech. This is the stuff that Champions are made of!
Mohammed’s speech will not be remembered for its inspirational heft, big promise or storytelling brilliance. But it will never be forgotten because of its teasing opening and a strong connection with the audience. The real story though will be a much more memorable and uplifting one. It will be the enduring story of a speaker who transforms himself, first by being able to speak at all, and then by conquering the world with the power of his words.
As World Champion of Public Speaking, life will never be the same for one Mohammed Qahtani from Saudi Arabia. And for countless others, especially those with speaking disabilities, Mohammed’s achievement will be a spur and a springboard for their own transformation.
What greater purpose is there to hold speech contests than their proven propensity to change lives?