Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 World Championship of Public Speaking - A Serial Contestant's Perspective

I mentioned on Facebook that I would 'be writing a blogpost about the World Championship' - even though I haven't blogged, apparently, since April. A few people actually asked me to tell them when I posted it. Therefore, I better write it.

First - a couple of caveats: 
1. I did not coach, nor did I even know, any of the Finalists this year.
2. I did compete, but took 2nd at District. For the first time ever.
3. I have competed in the Semi's eight times, the finals twice, taking third in 2006.

Second - a blanket statement:

All finalists are great speakers. All went through the wringer to get there. All gave excellent presentations, and were worthy of being there.

Now, for the 'Perspective'...

Speech contests, and contest speeches, are curious constructs.

Judged anonymously by relative amateurs of varying experience and personal speaking ability (some world-class, others working-class, and occasionally, other should-go-back-to-class), the contestants face bias and subjectivity, combined with the unknown factors of who their judges are demographically and ideologically, and it can feel like an impossible task.

Populated with mostly amateur speakers of the same varying experience and personal speaking ability, judges are armed with a sheet of objectives the speaker must meet, and then emotionally sort through speeches about dead relatives, terminal diseases, terrible hardship, mixed in with the occasional ego trip followed by the grand victory, occasionally peppered with a nod to mom/grandma/great uncle twice-removed for teaching them right. It also features gimmickry - standing on chairs, props, falling down on stage, and, oh, so much more. Even so, the higher the level, the better the speeches, and for the judges, it can feel like an impossible task.

I know this sounds a bit pejorative and sarcastic, but it's truth. The playing field is pretty even for all - so no unfairness is implied. Themes of the human condition are used because they reach the most people. Tony Robbins often says 'success leaves clues' - and the speech contest is full of detectives picking up on what has worked before, so we, more often than not, get served the same messages, in very similar packages, despite the vast diversity of speakers delivering them.

The 2016 World Championship of Public Speaking surely was an impossible task - to compete in, and to judge. It showed all that is great about the contest and the Toastmasters organization, as well as all that is, occasionally, expected and traditional.

I'm going to stay positive in this review, much as I want to be critical here and there.

Katina Hunter - An Audience of One. Great chess story, excellent use of short young child vs. tall older child, and the ability to make herself the hero of a story without coming off as arrogant.

Donald Crandell - clearly had fun on stage, kept it light, Live With It message was a unique concept. Nice amputee soldier story at the end.  Makes me wish my fake leg with help me climb mountains. I think I need an upgrade.

Elliott Eddie - one of my favorite topics - Give Yourself Permission. Interesting story about wanting to be a filmmaker and his supportive wife.

Kim Kaufman - owned it. Went all in on GPS and the concept of Recalculating - a speech I've almost written myself a few times. Clearly excited about her experience, and her message. Strong close.

Sherwood Jones - as a fellow comic book geek, I definitely connected with his opening. Personal Connection message was important and timely. Good humor, and extra points for working in PokemonGo.

Kaishika Rodrigo - Loved her pacing and vocal variety. Concept of Chiseling Out Your Masterpiece is another message I've almost used in the past. The whole 'the statue is in the marble, waiting for you to release it' is intriguing. She showed real joy as she spoke.

Josephine Lee - 3rd Place - now this young lady knows who she is. She played up the California girl in a way that made it endearing when it easily could have been annoying. Her humor and timing was spot on, and contrasted well with her closing revelation about her friendship.

Aaron Beverly - 2nd Place - forever to be remembered as '57-word-title-man', his message that talking a lot doesn't equate to saying a lot was truly original for this venue. Lots of energy, great 'Bus Lady of Doom' story, and excellent delivery almost launched him into first place.

Darren Tay Wen Jie - 1st Place - Captain Underwear. Literally put tighty-whiteys on over his pants for the majority of his speech. Took the concept of bullying from external to internal, a theme I have used repeatedly over the years. Grabbed our attention, offered a twist ending, tremendous humor. A worthy champion.

Now - here's where I may tick some people off. The person I wish had won:

Thien Trang Nguyen Pah - her theme of subtle domestic abuse was certainly 'out there' for this contest, just as her 'body image' theme in her semi-final broke the mold. She was emotionally open without being manipulative. The speech was crafted well, in structure, word choice, and staging. She even got a huge laugh in the middle of a tough, tough speech. To me, no other speech approached the 'professional speech' level of this offering.

Now, I say this without wanting to take anything away from any other contestant. And with full knowledge that this is my opinion, and will likely be met with opposition.

I understand why she didn't win, or even place:

- first speaker
- heavy theme that made people feel uncomfortable
- theme that may have not been received the same by the diversity of cultures

So, sure, it makes sense. But for my money, she was the best speaker, with the most important message, delivered in the most professional way. She didn't need gimmickry. She didn't need a laugh every 12.5 seconds. She didn't have to ask us 'Have you ever....' a million times. She just had to be authentic, identify the problem, touch our hearts, and offer a solution.

I understand why the Top 3 were the Top 3:

- humor
- memorable gimmicks
- energy
- universal messages

Hey - they were ALL great, and all of them had an argument for the Big Trophy. For what it's worth, my wife had Darren picked all along. In fact, everyone has their favorite, and no champion is ever unanimous.

My takeaway for Toastmasters today, however, is this:

How long are we going to allow the same formulas, the same message types, the gimmicks, to overwhelm true professionalism?

I regularly hear that 'no one would use a speech contest speech in real life', and when I show the championships to outsiders, they laugh at how 'over the top' we are. Is this who we want to be? Is this the type of speaking we want to promote? Darren, all the rest, and even myself must be forgiven for allowing ourselves to fall into this formulaic way of speaking - and even the judges must be forgiven for voting for it - because it IS what it has ALWAYS been for so long. Success leaves clues. Unfortunately, it doesn't always lead to GREATER success. And isn't that what we should be striving for in our crown jewel contest?

Thien, if you ever read this, know you are a champion in this speaker's eyes - and, trophy or not, I hope you Win Anyway as you go out into the world to Speak & Deliver the most important messages of all.

Darren, Aaron, Josephine, and all other contestants, if you ever read this, I mean no disrespect. You were awesome. You did what you were supposed to do, just as I have tried to do for over a decade now. Enjoy your triumphs, and keep inspiring us to grow.

I hope our beloved contest, as well as our organization, continues to grow as well.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Epic Keynote - a Review

Yesterday, I reviewed several books I've read this year in my Win Anyway Blog. Two of those books, The Art of Doing and You are a Badass, had some good lessons for speakers, but were still motivational in nature enough that I included them in that batch of reviews. The only true speaking book I've completed in 2016 is Jane Atkinson's 'The Epic Keynote' - which clearly belongs here!

I like Atkinson's style in general, and her book 'The Wealthy Speaker' is a great guide for beginners. Diving in this book, I was searching for a great keynote 'formula' that would make me look at what I'm doing in a whole new way.

What I got was the same old structure I always get, in the most simplified fashion possible.

Doesn't mean it's bad, however. In fact, it's filled with anecdotes from other speakers, almost to a fault. Atkinson seems more intent on compiling wisdom than chronicling her own.

The book covers a bit of old ground from The Wealthy Speaker, helping the reader identify the type of speaker they want to be, and who they should target. Then it hits the big topics - content, humor, style. It also talks about technology, storytelling, speaker's bureaus, and other ancillary aspects of the business, including finding a coach.

I did enjoy reading 'Tips From the Masters' and 'Flashpoints' from Mark Sanborn, Joe Heckler, Patricia Fripp, Darren LaCroix, and many, many others. I also found David Leiber's storytelling formula helpful.

It's easy to read, filled with short bits of accessible wisdom. If I'd picked it up 15 years ago, I'd be really impressed with it. If you're at the beginning of your journey in speaking, this is a great book for you. Just because it fell short of my likely too high expectations doesn't invalidate its content.

2 1/2 out of 4 Stars

Thursday, March 31, 2016

5 Ways to Approach Conflict (without ending up with a Kryptonite spear in your chest)

The big movie at the moment is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Huge opening. Lousy reviews. Great movie - but I'm biased. I've been waiting for this film for years, and I'm a huge comic book fan - specifically DC Comics, and there stable of heroes that include Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and hundreds of others.

So I loved it, for the most part. Still, one aspect really bugged me, as a communications coach.


When the big promised battle between Bats and Supes is about to begin, it's because Luthor has manipulated the two. He's convinced Batman that Superman is a menace, and kidnapped Superman's mom, telling our hero that unless he kills 'The Bat' she will die. Darn those super-villains!

The face-off starts promising enough. Superman tells Batman he needs his help. As he steps forward, he triggers a booby trap of hail and ice bullets. Pushing through that, instead of asking again, or, heaven forbid, telling him WHY he needs his help (Bruce, we need to save my MOM!), he pushes him across the roof, and a 10 minute battle ensues before Lois walks in and cooler heads prevail.

I understand they had to fight - it's the selling point of the movie. But c'mon. Two top-notch heroes fighting because they can't even communicate? Terrible.

While most of us will never be in the middle of a literally earth-shattering conflict, most any conflict can feel that way to us when we're in the middle of it. Our egos, our relationships, our livelihoods are often at stake - or at least FEEL as if they are at stake.

5 Ways to Approach Conflict

1. Set boundaries, expectations, and outcomes for the conversation.
2. Be willing to try more than ONCE to get your point across, before resorting to anger.
3. Disarm your 'opponent' emotionally by letting them know you understand their side of the conflict.
4. Avoid becoming overly defensive OR offensive, which takes you both off point, and into an emotional state that is harder to control than an objective state that focuses on the actual issues.
5. Bring in a third party to arbitrate/defuse the tension.

If you're headed into a potentially contentious discussion with peers, clients, competitors, or even your boss, you'll want to avoid having it end with a Kryptonite spear plunging into your chest.

In the meantime - go take a kid to BvS - cause I really want more movies. After that, go Speak...& Deliver!

Monday, March 7, 2016

You've got to MEAN it!

Last month, I was working with my wife as she practiced her keynote speech for BCNF - a Neurofibromatosis Awareness group in British Columbia.

Kristi is NOT a speaker. Well - she is, and she could be, and sometimes she even WANTS to be - but she's a wife, a mom, and in management at Colorado's largest movie theater - NOT a speaker.

Still, she's a celebrity in the NF world. She writes a popular blog, we put together a book for her a few years back, and she's dedicated to both creating awareness and educating doctors, parents, and children about the disorder that affects her and three of our six kids so directly.

As she prepared, she knew she wouldn't be able to memorize her speech. Instead, she's more of a 'lively reader'. She's worked hard to create a very authentic script - which is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Yet, every time she'd read it, I'd have to push her to really wring the emotion out of it.

"You've got to MEAN it!" came out of my well-meaning mouth more than once.

That's a huge lesson for all of us as speakers, whether we use notes or slides, or whether we read our speeches, or even can rattle it off verbatim each time without help at all. It's not just the words we say, it's the emotional meaning we give to them.

Kristi certainly MEANS everything in her speech. It's intensely personal, and designed to connect with and uplift her audience. It has humor, pathos, irony, anger, and triumph - all drawn directly from her real life. The obstacle is more often translating that meaning from the page via our voice inflections, pacing, and volume.

Tips for MEANING what you say:

1. Write the way you Talk - it's easier to be authentic when you deliver conversational phrases vs. well hone prose.
2. Record yourself - you might THINK you sound like you mean it, til you hear yourself say it.
3. Use Note CARDS - with bullet points to remind you where you're going, vs. letting yourself go through the speech solely via the script. Imagine trying to get somewhere new by car looking only at your GPS screen!
4. Highlight Emotions - with a real highlighter - different colors for different emotions, just to trigger yourself when you see it.
5. Get coached - or at least have a neighbor spray you with a water bottle everytime you slip into monotone.

When you MEAN it, the audience FEELS it. When they FEEL it, they remember it, and they are much more likely to act on it - which is, after all, the whole reason you're up there, right? To Speak...and Deliver!

I've attached her speech below - I think she's getting it ;)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Toastmasters Friday: What Makes A Champion? - Guest Post by Sharookh Daroowala

In the first of what should be many guest blog posts in 2016, Sharookh Daroowala Gives us both a formula for the international speech contest and an analysis of last year's event. As a Finalist in the Championship in 2014 - he should know!

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
4. humor
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?

Sharookh Daroowala, DTM, is the founding President of Competitive Speakers Vancouver and Advanced Leaders Lab.  A multi-category Champion in one of the largest Districts in the world, Sharookh was a Finalist at the 2014 World Championship of Public Speaking in Kuala Lumpur.  In the Revitalized Education Program, one of Sharookh’s speeches will be featured in the module “Connect With Storytelling”.  Sharookh is a motivational speaker and a Certified World Class Speaking Coach.  He can be reached at Daroowala@shaw.ca

Thursday, January 7, 2016

How to Speak & Deliver in 2016

Great Caesar's Ghost! Has it really been since September 7th, 2015? Has Speak & Deliver been left dormant for 4 long months?

Indeed, it appears so. Of course, we're in a New Year - which means lots of excitement and plans and goals - and bringing myself back to the keyboard for blogging is one of my big ones.

While the blog has been dormant - I have NOT been. I've been OUT there speaking and delivering - at conferences is New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas City. I've been coaching a great deal - and am having a great time connecting my new clients with their best messages - both for Keynotes and Contests.

Perhaps one of my biggest obstacles to writing here has been the 'illusion of originality'. I've been blogging here for nearly 7 years, and hate repeating myself. Of course, as speakers, we repeat ourselves all the time! Here, however, I've been a stickler for new ideas, new concepts, new subjects. I'm going to be less so this year, while still aiming to bring new thoughts to topics that might be old ground here.

I'll also continue with speaking related book reviews, and using more guest posts. If you want to write a guest post - email me at rich@richhopkins.com. I'd love to add your thoughts to the larger conversation.

It's easy to get sidetracked, especially when good things are happening. Speak & Deliver, however, is one of the places it all began - because of you, my faithful readers. Expect more, expect better. From me, certainly. And of course, from yourself - where will YOU Speak & Deliver in 2016?


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