“What did you think of the speech contest?” is the question I hear most often right after the World Championship of Public Speaking. I believe that some people wonder what I saw from my perspective, some are looking to validate their views, and some may be wondering what they didn’t see. Perspective is the value in the coach’s eye.
Every year 30,000 speakers compete in the World Championship of Public Speaking. The contest culminates each year at the Toastmasters International convention in front of 2,000 members and guests. This year it took place on August 20, 2016, in Washington, DC. I usually sit in the second row with the other past World Champions and compare notes while we relive our own experiences.
Whether you are Toastmaster or not, there is much to see, observe, and learn when watching some of the best speakers in Toastmasters from around the world bring their best. This year did not disappoint. Any presenter can learn from these insights. In fact, the day after the contest, at our Stage Time University event, some of the other champs and I compared notes for the audience. It was insightful to hear where we agreed and disagreed. That was what gave me the idea to write this article. Please share it with anyone who might enjoy it.
Before I share my perspective, let me clarify that it is easy to sit back and critique others. We could easily sit back and pick apart my speech as well. It was not perfect by any means. Let me also clarify that no one I was helping in the semifinals this year made it to the finals. Every competitor who made it to the finals earned the right to be there. I watched many semifinalists and I must say that I was glad I was not a judge. I’m just a coach who helps people deliver their message in a way that allows the audience to receive it. I’m on the side of the audience. That’s why we are on stage. I do not have all of the answers, just a few insights from a decade and a half of coaching.
On Thursday, August 18, 2016, 99 of the best Toastmasters competed in ten semifinals of the World Championship. The winners of each of the ten contests then had a day and a half to prepare a completely different speech to compete one last time. One of the downsides of this is that many people use their best speech to increase their odds of making it to the big dance. I understand the strategy, but as you can see, this can affect the quality of the final speeches.
This year’s contest was great. Each year I choose my picks for the top three, and I’m usually wrong. This year, I called all three but was not sure of the exact order. Often at this level, the differences are so slight that judging could go in many directions. Normally, I would not give unsolicited feedback, but I feel that once they make the world stage, presenters give up their privacy. This is just my perspective. My intention with this article is to teach all who read it so that they can consider these insights and question their own presentations.
Though there is only one winner each year, as David Brooks says, there are “many magic moments” in most of the contest speeches. If you want to see the speeches in their entirety, you or your club can purchase the on-demand video from Toastmasters at https://www.toastmastersondemand.com. (FYI, if you do, check out my AS speech on Friday Morning.) Although I was not an official timer, I think two of the speeches went over time.
The pressure of the contest at this level is tremendous. Speakers also need to connect with themselves first in order to do this. The people who connect more deeply under this pressure will tend to place higher. On any other day, the results may be different as some may be more relaxed and connected with themselves, but that is not how competition works.
One more thing before we start: This, I believe, was the first year with five women and five men in finals. Whether you are an expert or a contestant, your onstage image is important at this level, like it or not. If you are not a fashion expert, please get some coaching or insight from someone who knows. Make sure your clothes are fashionable and fit properly. If you lost or gained weight recently, consider getting your clothes tailored. I needed this advice myself a couple of years ago, so I’m just passing on what I learned from experience. When you are on stage, unless it is connected to your message, we should not notice your clothes in either a good or bad way.
I’m going to start with the finalists who did not place in the order they spoke. Again, I did not coach any of them. I’ll break it down into Loved It and Next Time.
-Thien had a powerful message.
-I felt the passion she had for her message, which is important.
-She made us see deeper into domestic abuse and how to help.
-Consider naming your characters.
-Use more dialogue than narration.
Coaching Point for All: Can we feel your message as we did Thien’s? Can we tell you are committed to your message? Make sure you name your characters. This will help your audience visualize them and connect more deeply with your story.
-The super power, which I will not give away, was a great message!
-Many funny lines were delivered well.
-The revelation in the speech was a great twist.
-Great tie-in to the hot topic in the news, Pokemon GO.
-Great last line. We thought it was over, but then he added, “Just wait and see.” I felt the close would have been stronger by ending on the line before that. Then Sherwood did not pause at all before he said, “Mr. Contest Master.” This diluted his powerful close even more. As Patricia Fripp says, “Your last words linger.”
Coaching Point for All:
First, Sherwood had a very funny and timely line and tied the Pokemon GO game into his message. What I loved about the way he did it was that it wasn’t forced, but seamless. Whenever you can tie your message directly to a hot topic, it makes your message stickier. It also, as he proved, has the potential for humor as well.
Second, do not dilute the effect of your closing by adding soft words. Find your strong close, and stick to it. Point to the contest master; do not verbalize the words.
-I really felt her message in the dialogue she had with the barber. Well done.
-She had a few great laugh lines that I choose not to give away, and she delivered them perfectly.
-Kim had a great revelation moment. If you are not familiar with this term, I’m referring to the Aha! Moment that accompanies the twist moment in a speech. This is where the cure is delivered. It is sometimes referred to as the Aha!Moment when the character on the journey receives the lesson.
-Consider a different title. The message is given away, and we know your direction with a title like this.
-Kim had an old line about a man asking for directions. It could be considered cliché if you spent any time in the comedy world, but Kim delivered it well and made it work. It is risky.
-She also had a powerful close, “Not just yet!” I loved it. Then Kim continued, “. . . because the joy is in the journey.” In my opinion, it would have been more powerful without those last seven words.
Coaching Point for All:
Whether in a speech contest or building our brand as a professional speaker, we need to be unique and stay away from low hanging fruit when it comes to humor. If you are talking about a universal comedy topic, you must be especially careful to be unique and have your own twist.
Also, though I have not seen this subject too often in speech contests, the idea of recalculating has been around a great deal in the professional development world. Many speakers on professional stages have used this analogy. Why? Because it is good, and we do need the message. Kim delivered it well, but because of social media it is becoming more challenging to stand out. We must all be a little more creative.
-Elliott had a brilliant line about his wife’s discovery. Brilliant.
-I really felt his speech. Though that may sound weird, having your audience feel the emotion is not easy, and he did that well.
-He had a great metaphor, but I don’t want to give it away. It was very relatable.
-Personally, I think the opening could have been stronger. Although he won me over eventually, opening by talking about a dream in a speech contest is not attention grabbing. Keep in mind that I have been watching hundreds of contests for 15 years. I’m not saying you should never talk about dreams. I’m suggesting that next time you should grab our attention to take us on a ride. Even using the word dream in an opening can sound cliché.
-He, too, had a powerful closing and then continued to talk. He said, “Permission granted!” It was well delivered. Then he went on, “Let’s see your dream: lights, camera, action.” It would have been more powerful if he had ended on “Permission Granted.” That was his message. Boom. Done. Stop talking.
Coaching Point for All:
Grab our attention; then take us for a ride. A really strong opening that gets your audience to lean in will set you up for success. It makes your job easier if you wish to educate, inform, or inspire. How is your opening really?
-Kaishika had a great, funny line that was also her speech title. I did not want to give away the setup.
-I liked the idea of her analogy. It is a universal message we need.
-Work on a stronger opening. The opening was a famous quote. There was no wow. A good opening at a club does not mean that it will grab our attention on the world stage.
Coaching Point for All:
I learned from my coach, Patricia Fripp, that ending on a famous quote can be done, but opening with a famous quote is not attention-grabbing. (We cover this in Create Your Keynote by Next Week in detail.) A little known quote or fact has a chance. Many speakers use too many quotes for the wrong reason. If you lived a certain life and then you heard the quote and it changed you, use it. If the quote has not had a direct impact on your life, don’t use it. Whether you want to be a professional speaker or have a message that matters, it is time to stop quoting others and be quotable.
-I liked the message: universal, and we all need to learn to live with something.
-Donald had some great comedy lines that I do not want to give away.
-He had a beautiful line for everybody in the audience about being at a convention. Very funny.
-I’m not a fan of giving your message away with the title.
-Donald made a mistake with the use of stage. He talked about the past and pointed to the audience right and then talked about the future and pointed to the audience left. It should be the opposite, and I had taught it on the same stage the day before.
Coaching Point for All:
Don’t give away your message in the title. A good title is intriguing and makes us want to hear the speech.
Make sure you understand the use of stage. The stage can be an invisible storyteller. Using it properly will clarify your message. Use it incorrectly, and it will dilute the power of your message.
-Good title. It makes us want to hear more.
-I just loved the message, which I will not give away.
-I felt it. She got a powerful letter from a little girl. It was moving.
-All mothers would relate to her stories.
-I might consider referencing parents a couple of times, rather than just mother. Dads can relate, too.
-Katrina was the hero of her story. No credit was given to the source of the lesson she learned.
Coaching Point for All:
Don’t be the hero of your own story. This can be easily avoided by looking deeper into your life and finding out where you learned the lesson. What was its origin in your life? Maybe you learned it from a relative, an experience, or even a book.
Connecting with yourself and the audience at this level can be extremely challenging. It often is the difference between a great speech and placing in a speech contest on the World Stage. Some great speeches never place.
And in third place:
-Her humor and comedic timing were amazing. (Best comedy lines were not in this clip)
-Her poise and presence were wonderful. We found out later that she spent years on stage as a dancer. Her stage time shone through.
-She went deep and admitted a deep character flaw. She said it was like therapy. Most people will not go that deep or are not willing to admit it on stage.
-Find a stronger opening. It was good but could be even stronger. (That’s all I could find on her speech. It was hilarious and deep. Well done!)
Coaching Point for All:
Connecting with yourself and the audience under pressure is challenging. Her background in dance is a version of stage time. There is no substitute for being comfortable on stage under pressure. Stage time, stage time, stage time. Josephine’s comedic timing was incredible. Because of my own personal style, I loved her reactions and animated delivery. If you watch the whole speech, you will see a clinic in timing, delivery, and reactions. This is what most presenters are missing in their storytelling.
Finally, go deep. Be willing to share your life’s low points. It was powerful to see her own admission wrapped in a powerful message. Though she was hysterically funny, she would not have placed without her message.
And in second place:
“Leave a lasting memory using as few words as possible, and strive with every fiber of your being to avoid being the type of person who rambles on and on with no end in sight, more likely than not causing more listeners to sit and think to themselves, ‘Oh, my goodness. Can somebody please make this stop?’”
Yes, that was his title. It is 57 words long.
-In my opinion, his title was one of the greatest in the history of the speech contest. You won’t be able to see this in the video clip, but the audience laughed when the title was announced and then roared when it was repeated again in standard contest introduction fashion.
-His opening pause was amazing. You can see in this video clip that he pauses before his first words from time code 0:14 to 0:26, which is twelve seconds after the audience applause dies down. Most presenters start speaking immediately after applause ends. Well done. We all resonated on his title during those moments of silence.
-From his first words, he then acknowledged what the audience was thinking. Brilliant, and it thus solidified his connection with the audience. This was all done within seconds of his actually starting to speak. Wow.
-I love his message. I do not want to give that away either.
-He had great, self-deprecating humor, well-written and delivered.
-I felt it when he said, “. . . when my mom said that she believed in me.”
-I related to his message about being quiet and soft spoken, which I am off stage. (You can ask my friends and family about that.)
-Loved his closing. It was poignant and powerful.
-I really have nothing for him for his next time. Aaron nailed it all.
Coaching Point for All:
The reason Aaron’s title was brilliant is because it was not just shocking, but it set up his message perfectly. It was not just a radical gimmick; it was part of his message. His speech started before he even took the stage. His message and point were being set up before he set foot on the stage. Impressive.
His first words were, “Be honest. You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” He got a big laugh because we loved him already, and we were ready to explode. Ask yourself, “What is my audience thinking about me or my topic when I take the stage? Is there a common thought or skepticism that you could tap into to create a connection?”
And the winner is:
-His opening. Like Jerry McGuire, he had us at “Hello.” We wanted to know where he was going with his dynamic underwear opening (See the video clip). Perfect.
-I love his message. He did not just talk about bullying. He took this universal message and added a powerful new twist which I choose not to give away.
-It was cool to see him acknowledge people watching on video. Well done.
-His line, “My eyes are up here” was hysterical and brilliant and unforgettable.
-His insight on identifying and observing was thought-provoking. By the way, that is the point of a speech. People put too much weight on the entertainment side.
-Though it was not in this highlight clip, there was a confidently delivered line: “Did you feel I kept them on too long?” This line was similar to one in my winning speech. Personally I do not mind. It makes a powerful point, but when there are judges in the room who have seen my speech, it is a risk. If they had perceived it to be similar, it could have counted against him. That did not happen, so it did not matter.
Coaching Point for All:
Darren had profound thoughts in his speech. Do you? What do you offer that will make your audience members think? Darren shared profound insights and then reiterated them while giving us a visual demonstration when he removed his underwear. (Now, there’s a line I never thought I would write in an article.)
So, what does this all mean to you?
The greatest speeches in the World Championship may not be perfect, but the message and the connection matter most. An element of entertainment is a bonus, but I feel too many people put too much weight on the entertainment factor. Many speakers have a good speech and mistakenly think that all they need to do is make it funny and they are done. You? How about making it thought-provoking and perspective-changing? Then make it entertaining.
The Most Important Lesson:
Remain a student of presentation mastery. You are never done. If you are not a speech contestant, you can still learn from the competition. If you are a speech competitor, do not make the mistake I made in 1998. Before I explain that, consider advice from Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith and former judge on American Idol. He was asked by Oprah about sending people home from the show. He said that when he sent people home he was not saying that the contestants would never be The American Idol. He said that he was saying that they were not The American Idol on that day. Then he said that what they need to do is go back to the clubs and fall down and learn more lessons.
If you blame your outcome solely on the judges, you miss the point of mastery. If you competed and did not win and felt you were robbed by the judges, I ask you this, “Are you willing to go back and watch a recording of yourself after your emotion dies down and then evaluate your true performance that day?” If you are not, then your ego will forever keep you from greatness.
In 1998 I came in second at a Division Humorous speech contest. I did not have the confidence to protest, and I boycotted Toastmaster speech contests for three years. You may have noticed that Toastmaster went on without me, despite my absence. I had been competing to win a contest and I had lost. I lost even more when I stopped competing. I needed to learn a life lesson more than a speaking lesson.
Be careful if you made it to a high level and you think you can attain that again next year. Why? Because,
In 2001, after the death of a mentor, I competed to become great at what I do. I competed to grow and serve, above winning. Then I could not lose. If you desperately want a trophy, buy one.
So, what did I think of the speech contest? I think the pressure of the contest forced these contestants to work harder than they ever had before. I believe that those who can look past their own egos will see that they have grown because of the competition. This will help every audience member they are in front of for the rest of their careers. In my opinion, the winner is growth.
Please share this article, and add your comments below.
Darren LaCroix, AS, CSP
World Champion of Public Speaking
P.S. Are you committed to Mastery? Check out www.StageTimeUniversity.com.
P.P.S. On-demand video of the contest… https://www.toastmastersondemand.com
What are the secrets, stories and strategies behind Unforgettable Presentations? Find out. Listen to Darren’s Brand New Podcast.