Friday, February 25, 2011

Toastmasters Friday: Are the Contests Fair?

For the next few weeks I'll be writing contest-oriented posts, as Toastmasters International's Spring Contest season begins, and with it, the International Speech Contest, which annually produces a World Champion of Public Speaking. Prior posts include: Why Contests are the Best and Worst Events in Your Speaking Career and Why Does International Become Inspirational?

Are Toastmasters Contests fair? Of course not! Silly question folks. First - just ask someone who has lost - you'll likely hear exactly why they should have won. Second - its judged by human beings using highly subjective material. Contests are no more fair than judging at skating and gymnastics events, or Dancing with the Stars.

Over the years I've competed in at least 100 Toastmasters Competitions. I've won some I shouldn't. I've lost some I could've (should've?) won. Overall, I'm pretty happy with how things have turned out. I've been a lot happier since I've learned to take my Aunt's age-old advice she imparted to me when I was 13 - Life's Not Fair - Deal With It.

This year, Toastmasters has ramped up their Judges Training, even offering online certification. Emphasis on Judges Training has increased. Guidelines for who can and cannot be a judge have been more clearly defined, although they remain guidelines, not requirements, and for good reason. Small clubs, Areas and Divisions won't always have the attendance necessary to provide the experienced judges TM recommends. I've even been to District contests where folks are recruiting judges at the last minute. Judging will always be an inexact science, and results will never be concretely correct.

With criteria on everything from content to grammar to gestures to appearance, who's to say who is best? What if my green tie isn't looked upon as favorably as another contestants blue tie? As a male, at least I don't have to worry like my lady counterparts - is my skirt too long or too short? Should I wear a pantsuit instead? 

There is no empirical scale that says exactly how many and which gestures I should use in my speech about climbing a mountain vs. your speech about jumping out of an airplane. Out of 10 judges, 3 may think it's too much, 3 may think it's not enough, 3 may think it's just right, and the remaining judge won't may not even care because they're either too enthralled with my speech, or thinking I'm using too many contractions.

An objection I hear from the outside world on TM contests is that it's amateurs judging amateurs. They are absolutely correct. The quality of judging from club level to the World Championship is as widely varied as the quality of a Jim Carrey movie. Sometimes you get Ace Ventura, sometimes you get The Truman Show. (And I'm sure there's debate between which of those is better - but I'll leave that to Dumb and Dumber to debate.) Most Toastmasters ARE amateurs. That's the point of the organization - to take everyday people and help them improve their speaking skills. 

Club, Area, and Division Contests are the scariest levels to go through. Despite best practices, you never know who will be judging. Could be a brand new member. Could be a member from another club who may want to skew the results for their own clubs competitor. Could be the spouse of another contestant. Could be an amazingly experienced Toastmaster known for their fairness that just happens to dislike your speech choice or dramatic use of vocal variety. (And, to be fair, it could be experienced, conscientious, trained judges who are looking out for the best speaker with an earnest heart. TM is full of them as well. Even if they hate your earrings.)
The point is, as contestants, we can only control ourselves, not the judges or the results. I've said it before, I'll say it again - there's probably never been a unanimous choice for World Champion. In my two trips to the big stage, I've been told everything from 'You were the clear winner' to 'You finished exactly where I put you'. If you expect results to be fair, you need to pick a different competition. Try checkers or chess - two games where you can control your own destiny.

All that said, I still think Toastmasters usually gets it right. The winners of the World Championships are all great and deserving speakers in their own right. Some are better than others when it comes to speaking outside of Toastmasters, but all are highly skilled and have learned to Speak & Deliver for their audience. Sure, occasionally a worthy contestant will lose at the Area Level. Or a World Champion class contestant can find themselves in a club with another World Champion class contestant, and never make it beyond the first level of competition. And occasionally, a speaker will win District and be completely spent for the next level, resulting in some mediocre speeches at the semi-finals and even the finals. 

But hey - that's life. And life's not fair.


  1. While we don't have many comments here - the conversation on Facebook is going strong. Friend me there, and join in, and/or share your opinion here!

  2. I just got home from an area speech contest where I finished second and thought I was clearly the winner. It's 11 p.m. and I'm pretty bummed and I google "I just lost my speech contest now what" and I am directed to your site. I found a lot of the information on here helpful and helps soothe the pain a little. There is some great stuff on this blog.

  3. Good to meet you Glenn - sorry to hear about your results, but glad they brought you here!



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