Yes, Talking Fish

by Daniel Brenton on October 4, 2010

in Public Speaking

In which the author finally explains this “talking fish” business, why it’s important to him, and why it should be important to you.

The Ordeal of the Fish

Start I‘ve been teasing you long enough.

On my About All This page I make an oblique reference to “talking fish” being a part of my odd little universe. Only my friends and some of the folks in the Las Vegas Toastmaster community know what that’s about, and in a few minutes … well, in a few minutes you will too.

A talking fish made me … (sorry, I’m choking up here) … made me a changed man.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in the site, about eight years years ago I set myself on a path to learn how to speak inspirationally. And, as I have also mentioned elsewhere, I soon after realized I should get off my podium (so to speak) and just be myself. But in the process I discovered how much I enjoyed making an audience laugh or touching an audience’s heart, and I know that public speaking in some form will always be a part of my life.

What made sense to me to do to accomplish this goal eight years ago was to join a Toastmasters club.

I think most folks who have heard of Toastmasters (but have had no exposure to them) have a vague impression a bunch of really dull guys in suits who give speeches to each other and admonishingly clink their water glasses with spoons every time someone says “uh.”

I’m no longer a Toastmaster, but during the time I was one I never heard an admonishing water glass, and no, it isn’t just a bunch of guys in suits. (The matter of dullness is something I will defer to a later time.) Now, I’m not going to turn into a Toastmaster shill on you, but I will say it’s done a lot for me personally.

(Okay, Daniel. What’s this “talking fish” business?)

(Chill. I’ll get there.)

Putting Your Potential Where Your Mouth Is

I do share the opinion of a number of high-profile Toastmaster-nurtured professional speakers that the fastest growth opportunity Toastmasters offers to its members in learning how to effectively speak to an audience (inspirationally, or even on things that have no socially redeeming value) is their gamut of speaking contests.

The organization has two contest seasons a year. The Spring season in the District I’m in, District 33 (it goes Club > Area > Division > District > Region > and the top, International), the first speech contest is what’s known as the “International Speech,” which is a five-to-seven minute speech usually of a motivational or inspirational nature. This contest goes all the way up to the International level, and every year the winner of this presentational marathon receives the coveted title “World Champion of Public Speaking.”

(Eh hem. Talking fish?)

(I said chill.)

For this District, the second contest of the Spring season is called the “Tall Tale.” This contest is not as fierce as the International, but is usually a lot of fun for both the contestants and the audience. It’s a three-to-five minute speech that tops out two levels down from the International level, at the District. A Tall Tale, (from whatever form they first appeared in the Toastmaster world originally) today is made up of one or more of three basic elements. It can be

  • The Vaudeville-style “Shaggy Dog” story, where the whole point of the scenario is to deliver a punch line that’s a play on words. (Probably everyone’s heard the joke with the punch line, “Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear,” or the other bit that ends: “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes?”)
  • A “liar’s club” kind of Forrest Gump story, where the speaker explains how his action or inaction shaped the course of human history.
  • An over the top “Paul Bunyan” kind of folk tale.

In the Spring of 2004, I became the District 33 Tall Tale winner, with a speech called “The Ordeal of the Fish,” about a talking fish who had been caught in a flash drought (we have those in Nevada) and had come to my front door to ask for water.

(There. I finally answered it. Are you happy now?)

Competitive Speaking for Fun and Profit

Having just described a little about the Toastmaster contest world, I’m thinking that, to a lot of people, this sounds as quintessentially dweebish as can be conceived of by the mind of Man. Or the mind of Woman.

Well, uh …

(Clink clink clink.)

I’d like to draw an analogue: most of you are probably aware of the TV show Dancing with the Stars. Now think about this. You’ve got a world-wide community of people who devote themselves to honing their abilities in ballroom dancing in order to compete with each other, the winners of which can call themselves World Champions.

World Champions in a skill that has no utility outside of competitive Ballroom Dancing.

Huh.

Now I’m not going to lie to you. The International Speech Contest has an element of that to it. Not very many World Champions of Public Speaking do anything of note speaking-wise outside of the Toastmaster community. But a few do — Darren LaCroix, the 2001 World Champion, and Ed Tate, the 2000 World Champion being two outstanding examples.

Most, however, don’t.

Relearning the Value of Competition

Despite this, there are good reasons to involve yourself in competitions of this kind. For me, I was changed by the experience, truly.

Now, I’m an odd duck. It’s true, and that’s all there is to it. I didn’t care for sports as a kid, or cars, and even though I was from rural Indiana, fishing had no appeal to me. I didn’t do Boy Scouts, didn’t go to Summer Camp, wasn’t attracted to hunting or anything like that. What I loved was space travel, and libraries, and long conversations about the outer reaches of the known. I had a brief period of popularity in Junior High from doing stolen stand-up comedy bits at talent shows, but it didn’t last long.

In other words, I never became involved in anything competitive. Because of that, I never gave myself a chance to become a winner.

On Sunday, May 2, 2004, I became not just the winner of the District Tall Tales Contest, but for the first time in my life, I was a winner in my own mind.

(Which is, believe it or not, infinitely better than being a legend in my own mind. And, yes, I would know.)

I had always looked down on competition, because I had only seen the ugly side of it. As a child I was not exposed to competition as a way of improving oneself, I was exposed to competition as an accepted way for a victor to humiliate the vanquished. Not competition to grow, but competition to destroy.

(I could blame rural Indiana. I usually do.)

These contests that I’ve mentioned, be they Dancing with the Stars or the Toastmaster International Contest, are personal Mount Everests, private transformative firewalks across the hot coals — trials by the fire of our own choosing.

The District 33 Tall Tales Contest of 2004 was the summit of my Mount Whitney, in preparation for my Mount McKinley and my Mount Everest. It taught me that if I was willing, I really could do whatever I truly wanted.

Because of this talking fish, I am a changed man.

• • •

In my next few articles, I’d like to share “The Ordeal of the Fish” with you, of the experience of that contest season, and of the process of how I wrote (or, should say rewrote and rewrote and rewrote) my original story into the prize-winning speech it became.

Stay tuned.

The other articles in this series:
2. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – The Arena
3. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – First Area Contest
4. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – To the Area Again, and Beyond
5. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – The Summit
6. Writing “The Ordeal of the Fish”

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

This article is heavily revised from a previous version (no longer available)
which was published on this site, Sept. 30, 2006.

End

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