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In which the author shares his first experience with Toastmaster contests, and discovers the hard way that when it comes to the contest arena, fair play is optional.

Ordeal of the FishStart Imagine standing on a raised platform with about 250 people in the audience. On top of that, this audience is not captive, not drunk, and is actually hanging on your every word. What would you be feeling?

Like most people, you would be petrified.

I don’t understand why public speaking is so terrifying. But it is. There is something about baring yourself (metaphorically speaking) to an audience — even an audience that couldn’t be more supportive — that forces every little doubt you’ve ever had about yourself into the forefront of your consciousness.

I suspect the reason for this has something to do with our not being raised to really look at our self-worth issues, and something to do with choosing to be the focus, even for a few minutes, of a couple of hundred times more attention than we usually get. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand the root cause of stage fright, but the answer to it is to get into the ring with that monster and slug it out.

And when you can do it with style, you’ll beat the snot out of it.

• • •

At first blush you might not think speaking competitively would take a lot of work.

As Daffy Duck would say: Tee hee. It is to laugh.

If you’ve read my article from October 4, “Yes, Talking Fish,” you have a general idea of what the Toastmaster speech contest scene is about. In the Spring 2004 contest season I actually competed in two separate contests, the motivational/inspirational International Speech contest, and the Tall Tales Contest, and I won District 33 Tall Tales that season with my speech “The Ordeal of the Fish.”

Here and for a few more articles I’d like to give you an inside look at this scene, and share the roller coaster ride of my successful contest run.

The Toastmaster Contest Scene

Let me set up a little bit of what the contest environment is about.

Twice a year every Toastmaster club in the world has contests within their clubs, the winners of which go to that club’s Area contest, where these winners compete with the winners of up to five other clubs. The winners of this level, in turn, go on to Division, and those winners to District. (The International contest has more levels and conditions, but let’s leave that for another time.)

But there’s actually some dynamics underlying all this. Having watched several seasons of Area and Division contests in Vegas, it’s clear that in some Areas the competition isn’t particularly strong, and in others it’s merciless.

The Toastmasters Organization stipulates Divisions will reshuffle their clubs into different Areas on a regular basis. When I became aware of the contest scene this hadn’t happened for a few years. The Area my home club was in at the time, C5, had a killer set of clubs. One of these, Powerhouse Pros, had a long-standing reputation of consistently walking away with the trophies (Powerhouse Pros was — and still is — a specialty club focused on individuals who want to begin speaking outside of Toastmaster circles or move in the direction of professional speaking). There were a number of other notable speakers that called this Area their home, and these Area contests frequently consisted of a showdown of several of the local steamrollers attempting to flatten each other on the way to Division.

My home Toastmaster club at the time, a successful traditional style club, had for many seasons only rarely sent contestants into battle, and usually was content to supply club members to play supporting roles in the events. There had been periods where the club had had its superstars, but this was not one of them. Simply, the temperament of the members at that time was not one driven to see the club represented on the contest stage.

(Honestly, I would rather see this attitude in a club than another attitude I’ve seen, and seen often. I have attended numerous Area contests where it is patently obvious the competitors had been pressed, been volunteered, or otherwise persuaded against their will to compete.)

(You know what kind of contests you have with contestants like that?)

(Well … they suck.)

You might think that if someone wanted to move up in the contest rankings quickly, they could do this by competing for a club in a weak Area. This only works so far — when you reach Division, most likely you’re going to run into the folks you were trying to avoid to begin with.

So, I saw it as a blessing (and still do) that my first experience of the contest scene was in a very strong area. I knew that to be competitive with this intimidating crowd, I was going to have to show up on time, packed, ready, and loaded for bear.

My Agenda, A Little Wisdom, and a Little Baggage

My original intent in joining a Toastmasters club was to learn to speak inspirationally. After seeing my first contest, and then catching a video at a contest judging workshop of a pair of moving and powerful motivational speeches at the International Contest Finals, it was obvious that’s where I needed to go.

I learned some things prior to the Spring 2004 season that contributed to my success. I learned most of these the hard way, but I learned them.

In my first contest season, Spring of 2003, I competed at the club level in the International contest with another relatively new member whom I will call Fred Bacher. Fred was a driving, extroverted individual — certainly compared to most of the other club members at the time (sorry folks) — and had grasped the value of the contest arena long before I had. His speech was so well put together and well presented, that when I was up I was so overwhelmed by how lacking my overall presentation was compared to his that I didn’t even bother finishing my speech.

The week before the club had conducted their Tall Tales contest, and I had won that contest easily.

Of course, there were no other competitors.

I was in fact (here I say this in front of God and any Toastmasters reading) still working off of my notes, but the club was supportive, and gave me lots of input in a round-robin evaluation we did right afterwards.

So I went to Area.

In a Toastmaster contest the speakers draw for their speaking order, and I managed to pull the last position. This is a good thing, really. There was some discussion in Las Vegas (and probably most Toastmaster) contest circles how much this matters, but I believe the reality is if you have two speeches of similar quality, one at the beginning of a contest and the other at the end, the one at the end will win out. There are two reasons for this: 1.) the later speech has the benefit of a crowd that’s “warmed up” by the earlier speakers — audience response is part of the judging criteria, though a good judge should take that into account — and 2.) the more recent speech is more fresh in the minds of the judges when they’re finishing out their ballots.

This was good for me for another reason. On this particular contest all the contestants were asked to sit off to the side of the stage in a row to make it easier for the Sergeant at Arms to mike us up when our turn came. As the other contestants presented, I was torn between sizing up the performances of the other contestants and dealing with the anxiety I felt toward getting up in front of an unfamiliar audience that was probably four times larger than my club.

About ten minutes before I was to present, I’d had enough time to work through my anxiety that I hit a clear space, and I realized why I was there.

It wasn’t to win at all. It was to give the audience a good time, and do it as well as I could.

Now I’ll admit that sounds like a no-brainer. Of course, I think it was fair to say that while I was treading water in that vast, cold ocean of stage fright, I had no brain.

Despite my nerves and a microphone problem that nearly disqualified me, I won that contest. I think there are two reasons for that. The first is that my speech was significantly funnier and better crafted than the others. The second reason is that my speech fit the definition of a Tall Tale better than the other three speeches. The judges, if they do their jobs as they should, evaluate contestants to a set of Toastmaster International-defined criteria. The contestant who does the best at meeting the criteria should be the winner.

For this last reason, this is why I placed only third at the Division contest a short time later. The first and second place contestants, though I feel did not have their material down as well as I did, and were not as funny as I was, met the criteria of what a Tall Tales speech is supposed to be better than I had.

This is one of the harder aspects of the contest scene. You invest a lot of energy in putting together a speech, and if you lose, it hurts. A good friend of mine pointed out that if you lose, it’s supposed to hurt. It shows you were invested, that you cared about it.

I think it’s safe to say that if the contestants aren’t invested, you wind up with the lame kind of contest I described earlier, where the participants aren’t particularly willing.

Blindsided by the Gentlemanly Art of … “Bad Form”

The following Fall contest season, in part distracted by some upcoming back surgery my wife was facing, and in part having not learned my lesson about being prepared from the club International Speech Contest in the spring, I walked into my club Humorous Speech contest unopposed, as far as I knew, fully expecting to go on to Area. At the time of the contest, Fred Bacher, acting as the Toastmaster (master of ceremonies) for the contest, asked if there were any other contestants. When no one answered, he announced he was competing as well and promptly blew me out of the water.

Though I don’t think Fred technically broke any rules doing that, he blindsided me. If I had been expecting some competition at the club level I probably would have worked harder. I doubt I would have gotten it to the level it needed to be, but at least I would have known what was coming.

(For what it’s worth, Fred didn’t even place at Area.)

Was this “bad form” on Fred’s part to blindside me?

In a word, yes.

Is bad form and poor sportsmanship unusual in the Toastmaster community?

In another word, no.

It is not uncommon at Area contests for club members acting as judges to place their contestants first, even though the contestants’ performances don’t warrant it. It is also patently obvious that there are judges who will vote down contestants out of personal dislike, rather than recuse themselves from judging. During the time I was a Toastmaster (and still to my knowledge) there are no mechanisms for accountability of judges in Toastmaster contests, unlike the mechanisms in place for judging in groups such as in the barbershop music organization Sweet Adelines International.

And, yes, there are outright troublemakers in the community as in any organization, and from my experience most Toastmasters are unwilling to hold difficult people accountable, or if needed throw them out of the organization.

Before I arrived at the club contest meeting in the Spring of 2004, I had learned some very valuable things:

  • I have to know my stuff. If I’m still working off of notes by the time of my club contest, I might as well throw in the towel.
  • I can’t hold back. To be competitive, I have to put everything I’ve got into it, or there’s no point in doing it. If my intention at the outset isn’t to go all the way to the top, I’ve already taken the first few steps toward washing myself out of the contest.
  • I have to know the criteria. If I put together a speech with only a vague idea of what it’s supposed to do, I’m asking for failure.
  • Expect the unexpected. If I’m not mindful I could get sucker-punched by microphones, props, even the location.
  • Even in the Toastmaster community some people don’t play fair. Despite the fact I may be playing within the letter and spirit of the law (so to speak) there are others who may not. (Like, duh.)

I feel confident in saying that for my home club’s Spring 2004 International contest, I did show up on time, packed, ready, and loaded for bear. My competition was an experienced Toastmaster new to the club, Bryant Pergerson. Bryant made me work, and work hard. (Bryant has since gone on to become a semi-finalist in the International. He hasn’t walked away with the big glass “World Champion of Public Speaking” trophy yet, but someday he will … or I swear he will die trying.)

I managed to claim the club first place trophy that day, and I beat the snot out of my stage fright to boot.

My mind quickly turned to Area, and I knew I needed better ammunition because my guns had to be loaded for even bigger bear.

• • •

In the next installment, the author learns that if you run with the big dogs you can be mistaken for a big dog … or possibly even a fire hydrant.

The other articles in this series:
1. Yes, Talking Fish
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 October 2, 2006.


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Daniel Brenton is the creator/author of the 5 Second Novel series, co-author of the space race thriller Red Moon (with David S. Michaels), and is the author of the satirical column The Round Files, published in Stuart Miller’s short-lived Alien Worlds Magazine.

Despite being a writer, Daniel has no cats at this time, is unwilling to become an alcoholic, and has a very difficult time keeping a straight face while writing about himself in third person.

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