Friday, January 28, 2011

Toastmasters Friday: Why Does International Become Inspirational?

2010 World Champion of Public Speaking David Henderson

For the next few weeks I'll be writing contest-oriented posts, as Toastmasters International's Spring Contest season begins, and with it, the beginning of the International Speech Contest, which annually produces a World Champion of Public Speaking.

A question/gripe I hear every year about this time is "Why do inspirational speeches always win the contest, even when other speakers are better?"

A valid question/gripe, particularly when nowhere in the judging criteria for the contest does it say the speech should be inspirational in nature. In fact, the speech can be ANY kind of speech you want, on any topic you choose: Economics, Politics, Religion, Global Warming, or even Romance. You can use props, PowerPoint and pop music. You can wear funny costumes and jump on chairs and use sign language.

And yet, even though today's judging training at Toastmaster International's website reinforces the above, few people do much else than give an inspirational or motivational speech. When they do, they most often lose, particularly at higher levels of the contest.

Why? A few simple reasons:

- Tradition. Look over the years of winners, and they ALL have something motivational or inspiring to say. Contestants and judges alike don't have much actual evidence to support approaching it differently. It's not like we've ever had a champion who talked about Immigration Law.

- Lack of Strong Judges Training. From contest to contest, it can be a bit of a crapshoot. Some judges know the book backwards and forwards. Others are judging for the first time. Training is often no more than a few minutes of covering the basic criteria, telling people not to show bias, and reminding them to sign their ballot. While the resources for better training exist, training is only as good as the folk in charge are capable of, or willing to, provide.

- Lack of Strong Alternative Speeches from Equally Strong Speakers. Usually the strongest speakers focus on winning, and thus go with a formula that works. It will take some brave speakers to decide to break the mold. Just as speakers once feared leaving the podium, using humor, or wearing anything but a suit back in the 70's and early 80's, today's innovators must be willing to risk the trophy for the importance of their message.

But the most important, in my mind is:

- Connection. Toastmasters audiences, and judges, are often wildly diverse, from age to experience to personal peccadilloes. No matter how strong a speech you deliver about the national deficit, you are going to lose members of your audience. You may think you're spot on in defining the sins of the world, but your audience may not just disagree with you, but vehemently disagree. And if you can't find a way to make quantum physics matter to me, you don't have a quark of a chance.

Inspirational or motivational topics are fairly safe. They cover achieving victory in the face of adversity. They may illustrate values we learn at one point but fall short of later on. They may point out tools and tricks to allow us to live better lives. What they are not, 99.9 percent of the time, is controversial.

The challenge in these topics is not in how not to offend the audience, but how to keep their interest while taking them to a path they are often expecting or are already familiar with. Just as people continually watch formula police shows and sitcoms decade after decade, or choose to listen to the same music over and over, audiences like the idea of being comfortable with your speech.

Speakers rarely bring new ideas so much as remind people of the ideas they had and never applied. Great speakers do it in a way that keeps the audiences engaged and entertained, as opposed to offended or objectionable. That goes for all speakers who actually intend to move their audience to an action they actually desire, as opposed to rioting in the streets.

Maybe this years World Champion will earn the trophy with an amazing Tall Tale, or hilarious humorous oratory. Maybe they will have such an amazing take on space travel that they woo audiences and judges alike. Maybe the technical ability of this years winner will allow them to promote Sarah Palin without creating a bipartisan atmosphere that sends their dreams straight into the Boston Harbor.

Are you willing to be the one who proves it?


  1. Inspiration elevates anyone's awareness, heightens the senses, and opens the mind - who couldn't love that feeling when evoked by a speaker? "...speakers who actually intend to move their audience..." will always be more successful, provided they are also humorous! Funny ALWAYS wins. Thanks for the Blog.

  2. Inspirational content is most often (always?) presented through a story-based speech, and contest winners combine both pathos and humor ...the two most powerful ways to engage an audience emotionally. Contest or not, I think all speeches need stories that combine the pathos/humor element throughout in order to engage emotionally with an audience. Great post, Rich!

  3. Great points, Rich.

  4. "Speakers rarely bring new ideas so much as remind people of the ideas they had and never applied" - Good Stuff Rich!

  5. Solid thoughts, Rich! You link inspirational and motivational, maybe even using them synonymously. I tend to see them as a bit different, with inspirational tending toward the warm fuzzies and motivational tending toward the "get off your backside and do something!" And from my limited observation, it is inspirational vs motivational that tends to win, but motivational that tends to pay in the real world. Interested in your thoughts on this.



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