WOW! History was made this year at the World Championship of Public Speaking. For the first time since the contest began in 1938, three women took the top three spots. Nice! Ramona J. Smith is only the fifth woman to win, ever. Congrats to every person who competed! The biggest question is, did you grow because you competed?
Selfishly, I’m also excited that three women came in the top three. For years the Champs and I have been getting the question, “Why don’t more women win?” The irony is, it is usually asked by a woman who did not compete. I usually ask why they didn’t compete and get an “um, er…” response. When more compete, more will win. There were four women in the World Championship this year. I love to see that.
Each year I take notes and write an article about what we can all learn from all competitors to become better audience-focused presenters. I also host a Stage Time University Member Summit www.stagetimeuniversity.com the day after the contest. I invite my fellow World Champions to do a “debrief” of the contest. It is fun and fascinating. We record it so all of my members can learn from it.
This article is filled with coaching insights from me and some from the other World Champions. This is in-depth and detailed. It is a much longer article than I usually write, but I feel there is a plethora of learning contained in every contest if you know where to look. My intention is to make it well worth your time.
First, the judges got it right. Boom! I look at the contest from a coaching perspective on delivering a message that matters, not a “points on the judge’s form” perspective. If people do amazingly well at this, they will do better and be more likely to take home a trophy. The trophy is a side-effect to serving the audience, not an end goal if you do it right.
When you read this keep a couple things in mind; I was not a judge. I’m a coach, and I surround myself with great coaches. I will share some insights from all of us. My intention is to help you, the reader, grow to serve your future audiences. I’m not here to pick on anyone or point out flaws in speakers. My own World Championship speech was not perfect. There are a few things I’d change in it if I did it again. When you get to the World Stage and you are putting your message out there to the world, you’d better be able to handle feedback. Though there are 2,000 people in the audience, over 60,000 have already watched the winning speech on YouTube, so it is not like I’m giving anything away.
This is just my coach’s perspective from over two decades of study. Sometimes I disagree with other coaches, but usually there is a truth we always agree on. I’m going to take a look at speeches in their speaking order. Some will have more comments than others. The number of comments does not mean good or bad, it only means there were teaching points. Keep in mind, 35,000 people competed this year. One hundred and five made the Semifinals, and then 10 winners made the finals. That is an amazing accomplishment that most competitors dream of, and thousands will never achieve. Congrats to each speaker! You did it!
Ever wonder what a speech coach sees that most miss? As a coach I often need to study a speech several times to really dig deep. Here are some first-take insights, thanks to Toastmasters posting the winning speech and highlights from second and third place speakers I was able to glean some additional insight that you may find eye-opening.
Keep in mind this feedback is one moment in time. Any other day the delivery may be different. It is the ability to deliver under the pressure of the contest. I fully admit it is easy for me or anyone to sit back and be a critic. I’m going to be honest and direct. My intention is to teach.
Let me be super clear. I’m rooting for the audience to get the message they need. I’m not evaluating with a judge’s form. I’m looking at the delivery of a clear message to serve the audience. You will be in front of audiences I’ll never be in front of. I’m passionate about helping you deliver the message they need!
Please leave any comments on my blog after you read this AND read other people’s comments. Feel free to disagree with me.
I feel this year was a stronger contest than last year. It may be partially due to the low energy last year of a Friday night contest with less than 24 hours between the semifinals and finals. I’m so glad that Toastmasters decided to go back to a Saturday contest.
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Sherrie Su – “Turn Around” (She placed Second)
Full disclosure, I coached Sherrie on her delivery the day before the contest. Mark Brown had coached her throughout the course of the speech’s development. I will do my best to be biased. At the end of the article I will give you a few more interesting insights about her journey.
This video is highlights of her speech, not her full speech. There are some important moments to notice. I strongly suggest that you watch the video clip first, then read my notes. See if you see what I did.
(This is not her full speech, only highlight clips from it.)
I thought it was attention getting to start with her back to the audience. It was slightly risky as it was done once before over ten years ago by Rory Vaden. I let her know, and she decided to go for it. I think it was a great choice. It was an excellent use of curiosity to draw the audience in. Her point was about turning around so it tied directly into her message.
See the time code:
The underlying tool that Sherrie had going for her was her presence and connection. She was well- grounded to herself, her message and her content. They loved her. They were connected with her, and that added to the funny factor of her lines.
This highlight video skips over one of the most important emotional lines of her speech. Her mom says to her, “Your mom or your dad, pick one!” Her pause after that line was one of the most powerful of the entire contest.
You may know that I’m not a huge fan of talking about Toastmasters in a speech contest. It’s not a hard and fast rule, just a personal preference. This year, most of the contestants did mention Toastmasters in some way. In Sherrie’s case, her life lesson was learned at Toastmasters so she, in fact, needed to. She did it really well without pandering to the audience.
A little behind the scenes insight, when I sit with the World Champions we usually keep track of the DDI index. This is a list of how many people in speeches feature someone Dead, Dying or having an Illness. There is nothing wrong with it if done properly and not done with the intention of pulling at the audience’s heart strings. That can be emotional manipulation. This year it was refreshing that there was only one mention. Cool.
Sherrie had the second most laughs of the speech contest (Kwong had the most). I will give you some more insights on her preparation at the end of this article.
Ricky Lacorte – “I Don’t Care”
Ricky had a great presence. I felt it when he told the story of his mom. When I was competing, one of the weirdest bits of feedback I ever got was from a couple of experienced Toastmasters who told me, “There is a problem with your speech. We didn’t feel anything.” What? That feedback made no sense to me back then, but it means a great deal to me now. As I learned recently from Michael Hauge, a Hollywood Story Coach, “The goal of a story is to elicit emotion.” That was well-done by Ricky, and not easy to do. The lesson he got from his mom was good, and I felt it.
One of my challenges with Ricky’s story was his use of the prop. He told a very funny story about a character he competed against in a singing competition named Louis Little Guitar. The funny story has us picturing the character; a man, all oiled up like a bodybuilder wearing only a pink thong. That part was funny and good. We saw Ricky’s own character frustration losing that contest. In my opinion, the problem was Ricky showed us a man’s pink thong. The bigger problem was he threw it and it remained on the stage. That became a minor distraction throughout the rest of the speech.
Personally, I’m only a fan of using a prop if it is a necessary illustration or directly tied to the message, thus, making it stickier. Had he picked it up and put it in his pocket or thrown it off stage, it may have been better. This may sound picky, and it is; but when you are up against the best speakers in the world, everything counts. Keep in mind that judging is subjective. Personal bias still plays a factor; and with twenty-one judges watching, any distraction counts. The difference between placing and not could be a single point. Even if it was not a competition, any distraction risks someone in your audience not having clarity on your message. They may need to walk away with your lesson. Help them by having razor-sharp clarity.
One thing I really loved about Ricky’s speech was his twist. He starts off by talking about being a teenager and not caring about anything. His attitude when he was younger was very relatable to us personally and, also, as parents. He was trying to show he was a tough guy and took it out on his mom. Later in the speech we learned that he, in fact, cared what others thought of him too much. I loved how he used the phrase, “I don’t care” essentially in two different ways. Nice. Ricky is very likable, and I think for sure we will see him in the contest again. Keep an eye on him.
Kevin Johnson – “Little Things”
After years of studying the speech contest, one of the things that I am not a big fan of is telling us right up front what the message is in the title or in the opening paragraph of the speech. Audiences are becoming savvier, so they are becoming more challenging to connect with deeply. While I’m a huge fan of clarity, I’m just not a fan of giving the message up too soon. In my opinion, this was the case for many of the speeches in this year’s contest.
One mistake I see even with professional speakers is leaving an “open loop.” That means unintentionally making the audience curious about something and never closing this loop. It can be a very effective tool if done intentionally and then closing the loop by the end of the speech. When the loop is not closed, it can become a distraction, much like the pink thong sitting on the stage. Kevin mentioned he was watching his favorite T.V. show and then never told us what it was. We get curious, what was he watching? The mystery is then never solved. Though it was irrelevant to his message, we were still side tracked! Keep in mind, the most important part of a presentation is the thought process in the listener’s mind.
This too, may seem nit-picky and it is; but if you want to be world-class, we all need to understand this. When we coach people, 99% of what we coach is clarity, clarity, clarity. Each evolution of our speech should get shorter and clearer. One way to discover these tiny distractions is to crave lots of feedback. We need to ask our audiences for feedback over and over again and then do the toughest thing for a speaker –listen carefully.
Kevin had great use of the stage. When he prowled like a lion across the stage, it was very believable. We saw his transparency in telling us who he used to be before he learned this all-important lesson. I loved it, and as a lover of stage use myself, I was beaming when he used the stage so well.
Interesting fact, Lance Miller had a conversation with Kevin and found out that he has only been in Toastmasters about eight months. Wow. Keep it up, Kevin.
Wiwiek Najihah – “If It Ever Gets Blurry”
Wiwiek’s message was that half-hearted love is never smart. I love the idea but felt that the speech needed much more clarity in the message. I believe all the contestants had the ability to create a world-class speech; I just think that some of them are not finished yet. They needed more work and more clarity and everyone, myself included, needs a qualified coach.
I truly wish she had more time to develop the speech. I did not speak to her so I’m merely speculating. Some people put so much effort into their semifinal speech that they neglect the effort on the final speech if they make it.
I feel like this is a speech that needed some more time and messaging. It had potential but needed more work for sure. It was one during which I did not feel anything, and I could tell it was meant to be heartfelt. There are a couple of factors that can contribute to this. One factor is that Wiwiek did not explore deep enough. Another is that she missed telling the “emotional transition” part of the story. If I were to go back and study the speech, I could give deeper feedback.
Ramona J. Smith – “Still Standing”
The 2018 World Champion of Public Speaking!
I strongly suggest that you watch the video clip first, then read my notes. See if you notice what I did.
See the time code:
It was great writing to reinforce the structure by ending each recap with, “I was still standing.” Which was her repetitive refrain. Note that she repeated the body language with the words as well. When she said “still” her right hand dropped, when she said “standing” her left hand dropped. Then she went to the other side of the stage and went to Round Three. It may appear out of order until she comes back to Round Two with a different result. Very well structured.
6:09 Note the look and charm on her face. She is fully connected and in the moment with the audience. Very present with confidence and not trying to force anything. That is a champion.
7:07 My favorite moment of her speech was right here. When after creating an amazing connection with her audience, the audience sings, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Watch her face, I don’t think she expected that, but she loved it!
7:20 This is a subtle and brilliant callback to 0:45 “If you learn from those past fights…” when she mentions we need to learn from the experience of previous fights and build on that.
7:28 Note the applause is at a higher level than for other speakers. I remember when seeing Dananjaya Hettiarachchi back in 2014, there was just a different level of appreciation. I believe it comes from a combination of many, many, factors that together create a deep connection with the audience on that day, in that moment.
MYTH BUSTED! For our humor lovers out there, who think you have to get laughs to win, Ramona had the fewest laughs of this contest. Ed Tate kept track. I love the proof that humor is a great addition. People put too much emphasis on humor and not enough on a clear and strong message. That is the important part. Humor is good, but it will not override a muddled message. Ramona was very clear.
Ed Tate has a brilliant term called “Audience Utterances.” This means there is an audible reaction by the audience in response to the speech. If it is a positive utterance, it trumps laughter.
If you looked at Ramona’s speech in words on paper, it was good, but you may have not thought it was amazing. Some of her stories could have been deeper, and she was missing a guide as well, so what made it a winning speech? Ed says this better than anyone, and I agree with him; he said that Ramona had the Three Elements of an Effective Speaker:
1) Authority means that you own the stage. Looking and sounding like you belong.
2) Energy means that the subject matter is important.
3) Awareness means looking at the audience and making them feel important. It’s listening with your eyes.
Ramona had all three, and that’s what made her stand out. Boom.
J.A. Gamache – “Building Wings to Fly”
JA is an amazing speaker with a big heart. He has made the finals at least twice before. That kind of consistency is rare. In fact, in 2001, in my opinion, had the most amazing use of a prop I’ve ever seen in a speech contest. He effortlessly used the same prop in three different ways.
When the audience has an audible response to anything, that is a great sign of connection and eliciting emotion. JA had at least two moments like that. The first was while giving a nervous toast and using the wrong name of the bride, instead, saying the ex-girlfriend’s name. It was amazingly delivered. The second time, there was an audible “owwwww” when he said he lost his job, girlfriend, and declared bankruptcy all in the same week. This is what Ed means by “audience utterance.”
What I truly admired about his speech was his willingness to be transparent. He was very open about the depression he had gone through. Please know this is more of what we need to see in speeches! Our willingness to be transparent and authentic is what will change lives. Please, please, please encourage this whenever you see it in any presenter, even at the club level. This is what is required to truly change lives.
When he started his speech, he went right into the metaphor of the butterfly needing to struggle to get out of its cocoon to build its muscles so it could fly. That combined with his title, many people knew his message and direction right at the beginning of the speech. If you have been in the self-development industry for any length of time you have probably heard that metaphor before. Let me be clear. His speech was original, but it is an overused metaphor. It has been used in motivational speaking for over two decades. It is a risk to do that. I’m not a judge so I have no idea if that was a factor or not.
There was a point in his speech when J.A. became very conversational. Then he connected more deeply. Prior to that it felt kind of like it was a rehearsed speech. Ed Tate and Lance Miller really noticed this and pointed it out. They are correct.
At the end of his speech, he used a magic trick that released a butterfly he was controlling. He did it well. Personally, I liked it, but heard some talk that some did not. When I polled our Stage Time members specifically about it, they had mixed reactions. We need to get most people to buy into it where people love it and it reinforced the message. One challenge is if the audience leaves thinking, “how did he do that?” It is a distraction from our message and purpose for being there. It, too, was a risk; and I love when speakers risk at this level of the contest.
Eric Feinendegen – “A Gift from Grammie”
First, I loved his message and how Eric made us curious. He opened a loop in the audience’s mind but did it like a master craftsman. His was intentional. He said his Grammie wrote him a note with only one word on it. What I loved about what Eric did was right after he said that, he didn’t tell us the word! Love it. He used curiosity to draw us in to want to know the word before he told us. When he revealed it, we were leaning in. Nice.
I learned the power of word-smithing (I know that is not correct, but It makes sense, and it’s my article…LOL!) from Mark Brown. Eric had a line that he said when he was describing his Grammie: “She was sweet, petite and could light up a room.” Augh! I thought for sure he was going to have a third word that had rhythm or alliteration. Instead he used a cliché statement, “light up a room.” Look, it’s not bad, it’s just at this level it was an opportunity to stand out rather than blend in. When you are creating a seven-hundred and fifty word speech, make every single word count. Watch Mark’s speech on YouTube and see the effortlessness behind each word. See how a master makes every word count. (See Mark’s Speech https://youtu.be/vn8sjKcSVpo)
That being said, I did admire how Eric reminded us of the statement, “imagination is the greatest nation” (had he stopped there, he would have lost points; but he Eric-ized it and said, “Procrastination is the worst nation.” Excellent. It was well-done and tied to his message. He could have even said, “In fact, it’s an abomination.” Just a random thought.
What was missing was the emotional ah-ha of the story that showed us the lesson learned. It did not feel to me like it was on an “up” emotion at the end. In our debriefing, Ed Tate had noticed that Ramona had great audience participation, Eric’s felt a little forced. I’d have to go back and study again to see why it happened that way.
Are you wondering what the one word was? That’s what I’m talking about. The word was “Today.” Loved the message. In fact, I may owe Eric a commission because someone came up to me and said that his message hit home with them, and so they decided to join my Stage Time University. Thank you, Eric. Not for that new member, but for delivering a message that people needed.
Kenny Ray Morgan – “The Power of Persistence”
Let me say right up front, Kenny has contagious energy and enthusiasm. I wish we could bottle him up. He also has made it to the finals before. Well done!
His message is also given away in his title. We know where he is going with this. It is predictable. There was no surprise or curiosity. What I was also not a fan of was many overused quotes, and some of them were not attributed to the originator of the quote. At a club level it is not a big deal, but when you are on the world stage you can be a role model to speakers around the world and especially people from your corner of the world. You represent them. They look up to you, and you set an example for your part of the world. I’d have to watch the speech again to be sure, but he may have even attributed some classical motivational quotes to his mom. Now, he may have heard it from his mom, but unless you are sure it is original, double check. Five minutes on Google would have clarified for him. He could have said, “That it was originally said by _____ , but I heard it directly from my mom.” We’ve got to do some research if we want to be world-class. Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE says, “We have to stop quoting dead white men.” We all need to strive to be original thought leaders.
Mistakes happen. He had at least two quotes like that. If I can start a quote and several people in the audience could finish it, it’s not good. He also used what’s called in the comedy world a stock line, “…Not to impress you, but to impress upon you…” There is nothing wrong with that line, but it has been used by many people for years; and on the world stage and it is a big risk.
I’m not a fan of pandering to the judges. He did it lightheartedly, but I just don’t think it is a good idea. Remember though, I’m not a judge; they may have liked that. If you have an important mission or message for the world, every single word matters. You may never have the privilege of 2,000 lives again. I hope you do.
He also did not use the stage with intention. He used the stage, but seemed to go back and forth a bit like a caged lion. We have to be aware that good use of stage will help clarify your message. If not, it will dilute your message.
He’s a flashy dresser. It is his business. It’s what he does, but if it could be a distraction, and you can acknowledge it, and get it out of the way.
Though not a huge fan of Kenny’s ice cream cone prop, he used it well. He showed it, then he put it away. Then again, he showed it; then he put it away, so it was not a distraction. This is what I’m, referring to when I spoke of Ricky’s use of a prop where he left it on the stage.
Here is what broke my heart though. Kenny told a good story about his own business challenges and how his mother encouraged him. I loved that he used it. He is a sharply dressed guy who is in the fashion business. He has lived an inspiring life, I want to hear about that! When he told it, I felt like his delivery changed. To me, he got more authentic. My disappointment was that I wanted to hear more about that. I wanted to know more of his story. I loved his passion. I wanted to hear Kenny-isms. I learned that from my other coach, Dave McIlhenny. He told me we need to create some Darren-isms. These are unique phrases of your own that become part of your message and can become part of your brand. Using this idea, Dave helped me coin the phrase, “Ouchmaster.”
Kenny’s mom had a brilliant original line: “It’s a willingness to go when others say no.” He could have built a powerful speech around his story focusing on this line. It would have been a memorable foundational phrase. When we hear other phrases that are overused, we then question other parts of the speech. I just did a quick Google search and did not find this line. I very much hope that he sees that he has a power when he claims his own place in the motivational world, and we start quoting him and his mom.
Kwong Yue Yang – “Good News or Bad News?”
This was a strong contest this year for sure. Many people who have been to the finals before made it again. Kwong, in my opinion, is a favorite. He is so likeable, it is ridiculous. He also has a great ability to write and deliver humor better than most. Some of my favorites in this speech were when he said that he was looking sharp in his brand new Armani suit… that cost him ten bucks.
Another line was when he was talking about China and the great wall of…people. He delivered it so well. Good comedy lines create and expectation and then change the direction. He had the highest number of laughs in this year’s contest.
He also uses dialogue very well. He said, “I miss you mom.” His mom replied, “Do you need money?” Very funny! Kwong has a great ability to deliver dialogue and has a natural talent he has developed over years. I’d need to study the speech more deeply to offer more feedback.
He had a brilliant play on words with “on time” and “on times.” I’d have to go back and hear that again to explain it better. I remember it was brilliant.
There is one more important point. Though it was not announced; and I was not an official timer, it is believed that Kwong went over his time which would disqualify him. I can’t say for sure.
Anita Fain Taylor – “It Is What It Is, It Ain’t What It Ain’t”
(This is not her full speech, only highlight clips from it.)
OK, love the title. I’m curious. I’m also excited because over-zealous grammarians are probably going out of their ever-loving minds. That’s even before they found out she came in third.
Here is also why I love it. She used it so well. She too, hid what the real message was for a while. Anita made us curious. She used the line twice before she explained what it meant. Well done. It’s also really cool because it is an original piece of wisdom delivered in dialogue from her dad. This is also why grammarians can’t count her off for it. It’s dialogue. It’s a quote. Nice!
I did not love that she opened with, “Mr. Contest Master, Fellow Toastmasters and honored guests.” It is polite, but not truly intriguing. Compare that to Sherrie’s opening, not even facing the audience. The cool thing about Sherrie’s opening was that it was not a “gimmick”. It was directly tied to her premise. If you feel the need to acknowledge the contest master, consider doing it as your bridge between your opening and the body of your speech.
I strongly suggest, that you watch the video clip first, then read my notes.
See the time code:
Personally, I’m also not a fan of ending your speech saying, “Mr. Contest Chair.” As I learned from Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, “Your last words linger.” Anita has a strong close by getting the audience to repeat her foundational phrase and then diluted the effect by saying that. Go back and see how Sherrie gestured to the contest chair, but did so in silence. Which do you think is more powerful?
• • •
I learned a great lesson from Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, when he was interviewed by Oprah. He said that when he was a judge on American Idol and he had to send a contestant home, he was not saying they would never be the American Idol, he was just saying they were not the American Idol today. All that means is that you just need to go back into the clubs and learn a few more lessons, that’s all. He’s saying that you’re not done; you just need to sharpen some skills. If you have ever competed, strive to be better to serve the audience. Don’t do like I did in 1998 and let your ego blame judges and give up. There are more breakthroughs waiting for you if you just keep sponging. (See part of that interview https://youtu.be/GJbzKWTAWVM )
Let me be clear. One contest does not define anyone. There are many people who did not win the World Championship and went on to out-earn many of the Champions. There are others who have won and barely speak professionally. Some by choice, others because they have not marketed themselves properly. You are the CEO of your life and career. It’s what you do with your experience that matters.
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Some inspiring facts about Sherrie Su.
(I met Sherrie in China in November. That is when she joined Stage Time University.com)
When coaching Sherrie the day before the World Championship Finals, she had an amazing ability to make last minute changes. Why? There is a reason. It was no accident.
Sherrie practiced her semifinal speech over 300 times.
Sherrie practiced her finals speech over 200 times.
Want to be a Champion? Do you prepare like a champion? Who are your coaches?
On a recent conference call, I asked Sherrie, “What did you learn?”
“You can’t be great by yourself.” – Sherrie Su
She thanked her husband, her club and several Stage Time University coaches.
“You have to stand for something bigger than yourself.” – Sherrie Su
She put the message before the messenger.
I also asked her, “What advice would you give to other competitors?”
“Believe you can do it. Do it. Keep doing it.”
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