It was 1998. I had been a Toastmaster for four years and was starting to get paid for my keynote speeches. I was sitting in my seat, eagerly awaiting the announcements of the Division Humorous Speech contest. I had worked hard on my speech; it was completely original, and I had gotten some good laughs.
The contest master said, “And the second place winner is Darren LaCroix.” I thought, “What? That means I didn’t win! Are you kidding me? Were the judges blind? Did they not see that the other contestant used a string of old jokes and just wove them together? That is not original. These contests are stupid. I’m boycotting speech contests!”
Needless to say, despite my personal boycotting of Toastmasters speech contests for a few years, they continued just fine without me. It’s funny to me now, but I was mad then. Before I could win like a champion, as Cathey Armillas helped me realize, I had to learn how to lose like one first. I truly had some growing up to do.
The biggest question for any competitor is, “Why are you competing?” In 1998 I was competing to win for my ego. Though I had been doing stand-up comedy since 1992, I was still trying to prove my credibility in the speaking world. My why was shallow.
It is that time of year again when speech contestants from around the world are competing for the World Championship of Public Speaking. For every speech contest that someone wins, obviously many more do not. Each person is on their own personal journey, dealing with their own demons, naysayers, and encouragers. Their pasts and their mindsets can be challenging, especially when they deal with the emotions of winning and not winning.
Lance Miller, the 2005 World Champion of Public Speaking, is famous not only for winning the speech contest, but also for competing nine times and not making it past the club contest level, the very first round. Lance also made it to his District four times (4th level) and three times to the semifinals (5th level, then called Regionals) before he won the contest.
Wondering how he felt about this subject, I asked Lance about his journey and how he had felt along the way. He has some brilliant insight. He said that in the early contests, he wasn’t winning enough because he wasn’t losing enough. Smart.
I know many speech contestants compete because they think it will launch their speaking careers. Well, it depends – not on the victory, but on what you learn about yourself. There are many speech contestants who have won it all and never turned it into a career. There are also some speech contestants who made it to the World Stage finals and never won, yet who earn much more as professional speakers than I do. Lance said, and I concur, you learn much more from the speech contests you don’t win than the ones you do. Lance also says, “The opposite of winning is learning, not losing.”
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he wants his children to be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by content of their character. I love that line. Well, as a speech contestant, your true character is revealed more when you lose than when you win. Jim Key came in second in the speech contest in 2001 and again in 2002. He was classy and professional all the way, a true champion. In 2003 he won the World Championship. How do you lose?
My mindset was surely not that of a champion in 1998; it was just the opposite. I had lots to learn and much growing up to do. In one of Lance’s speech contests, an untrained timer failed to change the settings from an evaluation contest, so the timer was still set to three minutes instead of seven. Lance was the first speaker, and the red light came on three minutes into his speech. It messed him up. He readily admits that if he had been a champion then, it would not have bothered him.
Champions are ready for anything and do not have a victim mindset. It’s horrible to hear, “I would have won the contest if . . .” Ouch! Speech contests are subjective; so is life. You can learn a lot about your life and mindset based on how you act and respond in a speech contest. Please, don’t email or text anyone when your emotions are high. If you are under the influence of your own emotions, you may say something you will regret in a week or two. The people who run speech contests are volunteers. They are people who deserve respect even if they make a mistake. Results are final. They cannot be overturned even if you are right. People’s observations of how you act in that moment can’t be changed either.
In 1998 I did not understand that I could have protested. Honestly, even if I had, I was coming from the place of a victim. Know the rules, and respect the rules. Know that everyone involved has their own interpretation of them, as well.
I suggest to speech contestants that they wait a week or two, go back and review the recording of their speech, and then look at how good the speech was. You might be shocked at what you see. You might even see what the judges saw that day. Lance says,
“It is going to be pretty hard to learn from my mistakes
if I’m unwilling to admit I’m making any.”
In 2005, Lance was competing more for the purpose of seeing if he was good enough to speak at the international level rather than for the purpose of winning. When I entered the speech contest in 2001, it was to improve my best stories for my professional keynote speech, not to win as a launching pad for a career. My speaking and stories got better at every level. The pressure of the contest improved my skills forever. No one can take that away from you. It serves you for the rest of your life if your intention is for improvement rather than for a plastic trophy. Lance and I both had to lose a lot in order eventually to win. Notice how both of our why’s changed. Have a bigger why, and you’ll have a better outcome. If you want to win like a champion, first learn to lose like a champion.
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