“The Ordeal of the Fish” – First Area Contest

by Daniel Brenton on October 12, 2010

in Public Speaking

In which the author concedes that when preparing for competition, thinking you can do it alone is … kinda dumb.

Ordeal of the FishStart: Mentors. Who needs them?

You do.

In the spring of 2004 I had won the club level of the Toastmasters International Speech contest, the very first step in a competition that literally spans the world, reaching dozens of nations, East and West.

At the same time in some Toastmasters Districts, a second contest was underway, the sometimes whimsical and usually humorous “Tall Tales” contest. At the outset I had no intention of competing in this second contest, but Life had other plans.

At the eleventh hour I realized if I wanted to go real any distance with the International competition, I needed help. The man I am calling Fred Bacher, the former fellow member of my home club who had helped to reignite club interest in the Toastmaster contest scene, had already pointed me at a resource that I had not yet embraced.

Before Fred had moved out of state, he had joined a specialty club called Jackpot Speakers, a rebel band of contest animals intent on having within their ranks, in only a few short years, winners of the International Speech contest, a rare species of Toastmaster known in the organization as “World Champions of Public Speaking.” Fred had encouraged me to check it out, but I resisted, partly due to being intimidated by the caliber of speakers Fred was traveling with. And partly, the one thing I did have on Fred was my ability to write compelling material.

At the time I was still harboring the thought I could conquer any given contest alone.

(Silly me.)

“What a Difference a Day Makes”

The speech I was taking to Area was about the recognition of the power of gratitude in the face of the horrific events of 9/11. Called “What a Difference a Day Makes,” it used part of the anonymously-written free-verse poem that began circulating the internet a few days after after the terrorist attacks. Just recently I did another internet search to see if the author had come forward (still no) and discovered there were several slightly different versions in the poem.

If you haven’t already, you’ll probably recognize it immediately. Here are the first few lines of the version I used.

On Monday we emailed jokes
On Tuesday we emailed prayers

On Monday we thought that we were secure
On Tuesday we learned better

On Monday our heroes were athletes
On Tuesday we learned who our heroes really are

The real payoff for me in this poem was a little postscript, that read:

It is sadly ironic how it takes horrific events to place things into perspective, but it has. The lessons learned this week, the things we have taken for granted, the things that have been forgotten or overlooked, hopefully will never be forgotten again.

It’s simple, even awkward in places — and still powerful as hell.

I had an opportunity to present a version of this speech at the Area D1 Evaluation and Humorous speech contest in the Fall of 2003. The Evaluation Contest uses a guest speech (also known appropriately as a “target speech”) and the contestants are judged on how well they evaluate the speaker’s presentation — how well the evaluator can identify strengths and weaknesses in the presentation of a speech and how skillfully he or she can convey these. This truly was a serendipitous moment for me — this speech was clearly a September 11 speech, and the contest took place September 11, 2003. Normally an evaluation contest tries to use speakers who are only a few speeches into their Toastmaster career, but I when I volunteered the speech to then Area Governor Phil Batemen, the man in charge of the contest, he was sold the moment I suggested it.

That night I was on top of my material, and the audience was moved, deeply. It was a cathartic moment for everyone on that emotionally charged day.

The feedback I got about my speech, both during the contest by the evaluators themselves and afterwards by audience members and other participants was that this was a difficult speech to suggest anything in which to improve. I think several people that night — including Linda Bown, the winner of the Evaluation contest (representing Jackpot Speakers), and Rocky DeLorenzo, the winner of Humorous, representing the club Windjammers (but also a member of Jackpot Speakers), invited me to visit … Jackpot Speakers.

(There was that club again.)

In the Court of the Toastmaster Kings

When I used to compete I would do my “contest crawl” — where I try to hit all the Area contests I could, largely to get a sense of my competition, and partly to keep increasing my familiarity with the contest environment, if nothing else than by sheer osmosis.

I think the name “Jackpot Speakers” came up again in my Spring 2004 contest crawl (probably by its founder, Narayanan Doraswamy, a Regional finalist in the 2003 International contest), and my resistance finally eroded completely.

Narayanan Doraswamy was delighted I had finally come to visit the club. Narayanan, I think it is fair to say, is a mentor’s mentor, a man who takes great pleasure in taking someone under his wing.

Jackpot is a crucible for refining contest speakers, an environment where the value of competition is recognized. Jackpot at the time flouted conventional Toastmaster meeting structure, focusing almost exclusively on speeches and disregarding the other trappings of the typical club meeting. The official meetings are still held twice a month at a local library, and there are still usually two unofficial meetings of the club per month held at a member’s home. Presenting a speech to this group was (and still is) a demanding experience, because during a presentation the level of attention directed at you is enormously high, and verbal and visual responses to your presentation are minimal because the members are giving your speech so much attention and thought. Afterwards, you are deluged with excellent feedback from a variety of vantage points. The problem then becomes not getting lost in all the feedback and sorting out what will really work for your speech.

After winning at my home club I attended a meeting of Jackpot Speakers, and did “What a Difference a Day Makes” for them. My memory of the main points of the feedback I got was:

  • The speech was relentlessly serious. This appears to be a common mistake with newbies entering the International. In my case I was hammering the audience with some pretty heavy emotions with very few moments of relief. A quick review of the winners of the International finals over the last few years will show you humor is used liberally with great skill in all the presentations, even if the subject matter is very heavy.
  • I wasn’t using my “stage.” Most, if not all really successful competitors not only “own” the stage, but transform the stage into essentially a great big visual aid to make different areas represent different aspects of their speech.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad. I was freely complimented about my writing, the flow of my language, comments that felt really good coming from these very capable speakers.

That left me only a short time (about a week — eek!) to refocus the speech with their suggestions in mind.

The Area C5 Contest, March 6, 2004

The cafeteria of the NV Energy building (formerly Nevada Power) was, for some time, a mainstay for Division Events and several Area C contests. It’s a big, tall room with lots of glare from an odd window arrangement, and a problematic sound system.

And it was free, so the community was glad to be able to use it.

At 8:30 in the morning on the day of the contest I was not thinking of any of these things. Dressed in my best, with an American flag lapel pin adorned with a tiny purple ribbon, I was restless, and more nervous than usual. The main reason for this was, having worked up a revised version of the speech and practiced it for what I knew was an insufficient amount of time, I was caught in dilemma: should I stick to a weaker version of the speech I was more confident in, or hang it out over the edge with the new version I was not really sure of and, assuming I could pull it off, improve my chances at winning?

As Charlie Brown would say: arrggggggggh!

I wound up sitting at a table somewhat off to the left side of the performance area, next to one of my competitors, the odds-on favorite Rocky DeLorenzo. I believe he was a member of two other clubs at the time, Windjammers and Jackpot Speakers, but that day he was representing my home club’s nemesis, Powerhouse Pros.

He seemed friendly enough.

It is traditional to start the event with the Tall Tales contest. After three out of the contestants had presented, I finally left the room, went down a corridor and tried to focus. Which way do I do this?

Finally, about 15 minutes before I was to present, I was finally able to decide. I was going to risk the new version.

I went back to where I had been sitting and started into what’s become my usual stage fright ritual. I think of it as “staring down the devil.” It’s a little like mentally arm-wrestling your inner demons until you’ve worn them down or it’s clear you have the upper hand. Today, it was going to be tough.

Rocky got out a jar of some kind of lip balm, offered me some. I appreciated the offer but didn’t take him up on it. I realized he was doing it to keep his lips from sticking together if his mouth was to go dry. I fished my Chapstick out of my pocket.

Rocky had pulled second place out of five and I had pulled fourth. While the first speaker was presenting, I swear to you it was as if I could feel the tension radiating off of Rocky.

Hey, at least I wasn’t the only one.

The first presenter finished, and by established protocol the audience maintained a minute of silence for the judges to work their ballots.

The Toastmaster announced Rocky in the traditional manner: the contestant’s name, speech title, speech title, contestant’s name. “Rocky DeLorenzo, ‘Made in China.’ ‘Made in China,’ Rocky DeLorenzo.”

Despite the tension I felt off of him moments before, Rocky took to the presenting area with confidence and dove into his speech. “Made in China” was a touching message about the adoption of his daughter, and what it really means to be a father. Despite having to overcome a difficult to manage speech issue (he has a stutter and has successfully learned how to keep it completely under control) he delivered his message with great effect, and I doubt (except for at least one person completely preoccupied with stage fright) there was a dry eye in the house.

Another minute of silence, then the third speech — a surprisingly passionless politically correct message delivered well. I wrote it off.

For me, the last moment of silence.

“Daniel Brenton, ‘What a Difference a Day Makes.’ ‘What a Difference a Day Makes,’ Daniel Brenton.”

I strode to the center of the presentation area with as much confidence as I could muster, shook the Toastmaster’s hand, and faced the audience smiling as sincere a smile as best I could. I made eye contact with a couple of people, and immediately noticed the founder of Jackpot Speakers, Narayanan Doraswamy, was seated center front.

Smiling back, thankfully.

I launched into my opening line, and in a few moments I knew I was in the groove. I could feel the audience with me, and I found the right pauses when I dropped a couple of quips that provoked moderate laughter. As I quoted several lines from the internet poem I felt the audience become quiet and reflective (those lines make the emotions of those heart-wrenching hours flood right back). My hope had been to draw the audience into a reflective place about a hard moment in all of their American lives, and push them into the recognition that gratitude can transform us in the heart of all of those moments.

I think I was succeeding. Narayanan was smiling with what appeared to be a touch of pride, and a few seats away, Powerhouse Pros member professional speaker and comedian S. Frank Stringham was giving me an expression that said wow.

Encouraging.

I fumbled over a possessive case in the first sentence of a new section, but recovered, and pressed on.

I worked through the remainder of the speech, crossing the stage area slowly, managing to wind up close to the center when I reached my concluding lines. I acknowledged the contest Toastmaster (the time-honored signal of completion) and she was thoughtful enough to wait “in the wings” for a moment so I could take in the applause.

I could feel the sincere appreciation in it. It felt wonderful.

As I sat down, Rocky shook my hand.

The last presenter spoke, a speech I remember only sketchily, and at that point the torture that all contestants have to endure as part of the contest process began — waiting. There was the traditional post contest interviews, and the announcements, and the raffle drawings, and the announcement of the annual awards for outstanding Toastmasters in the Area.

Then the contest winners.

The tall tales were announced first. Then the International.

Third place, Daniel Brenton.

Third place?!

With as much dignity as I could manage, I crossed the speaking area and was presented with the Third Place plaque by the Area Governor, assisted by the Division Governor.

Yes, I was disappointed. But I think what disappointed me the most was that I couldn’t go any further. As the character Hudson said in the movie Aliens: Game over, man!

Second place was the surprisingly passionless politically correct speech.

Huh?

First place: Rocky DeLorenzo.

It was my turn to shake his hand.

I wasn’t the only one surprised by the results. I had a few people tell me directly they thought I had won it, and afterward I received some wisdom about the judging process I hadn’t considered. It is the nature of voting that if the judges are split between, say, first place but are in agreement about second, the second place contestant could actually take first place. By Toastmaster rules judges are not to discuss their voting and the vote counters and Chief Judge are not to discuss the overall results. Once the Chief Judge has ruled, the results are final and all ballots are destroyed.

Rocky later paid me a compliment. He told me, “When I heard your name announced for third place, I gave a sigh of relief.”

Toastmaster Wars: A New Hope

The contest was over, and I was washed out of the competition. But I was still hungry to keep going.

Vegas has an advantage that most metropolitan areas have over rural parts of a Toastmaster district — there is more than one division in the city (at the time two, but now there are actually three). Because of this, if a person is of a mind to, he or she can be a member of clubs in more than one division. In terms of contest strategizing, this can give you options you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Narayanan Doraswamy worked for the same employer that I did, and one day at lunch shortly after the C5 Contest we chatted. I shared with him that I wished I could keep speaking that contest season. He pointed out that I couldn’t compete in the International any further because I’d placed third at Area, but because of how the contests had been scheduled that season it was still possible for me to compete in Division D, in the Tall Tales contest.

Then, showing utmost confidence in my abilities, he offered me a chance to represent Jackpot Speakers in the Area D1 Tall Tales Contest.

In hindsight, I’m surprised it took me a week and a half to decide.

• • •

In the next installment, the author discovers sometimes it is best to speak about something with no socially redeeming value whatsoever.

The other articles in this series:
1. Yes, Talking Fish
2. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – The Arena
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 4, 2006.

End

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