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In which the author finds the way to an audience’s heart is to deliver material without any socially redeeming value whatsoever.

Ordeal of the FishStart: The Spring 2004 Toastmaster contest season was truly a banner season for me. Though I had come in third in the Area level in the International Contest (the annual motivational/inspirational speech competition that attracts competitors from around the world), I was given an opportunity to compete for another club in the season’s sister competition, the Tall Tales contest.

With the feedback of both the members of my home club and the contest-focused members of my second club Jackpot Speakers, I crafted a solid draft of my tall tale speech, and then set about the task of memorizing it.

The Practiced Art of Being Glib

Have you ever memorized a speech?

Early on in my Toastmaster career I was told not to attempt to memorize my speeches, but rather memorize my opening and closing remarks and work to a bullet-point outline for the body of it.

The people who told me that didn’t do contests.

(Everyone’s an expert.)

If there are big winners in any of the speech contests in Toastmasters who speak extemporaneously off of a general outline, I don’t know who they are. Speeches that win the International are tightly written and carefully choreographed presentations that integrate words, vocal dynamics, gestures, stage direction, and in some cases props into a seamless whole.

Memorizing a speech for me is a real chore. I am as thick as a brick when it comes to this — it seems to take forever for the words and sentences to percolate through and congeal in my memory. But as time goes on, passages slowly and finally stick and solidify in place. One of my personal milestones in developing a speech is when I can get all the way through a working draft for the first time, end-to-end, without referring to my notes.

There are levels of familiarity with material, at least for me. When I first started trying to internalize a speech, I would reach points where I felt like I had the material pretty well down, and then when I’d get in front of an audience (even a familiar audience like my home club was) I would just go blank.

I should note that the way I’ve chosen to work with my material springs from being a writer first. Language has power, and the choice of the right words and the right cadences for the delivery of the ideas and feelings behind those words is paramount, in my opinion. So I memorize the material verbatim and stick with it. This really is an oratorical approach, and at worst can wind up feeling stiff and rehearsed, but at best can be (depending on the material) soaring and majestic.

(Or, in the case of “The Ordeal of the Fish,” whimsical and silly.)

Obviously, once I’ve gotten the words of the speech down, I can start working with other aspects … the phrasing, volume, pitch, even different kinds of tone qualities that can add to the overall effect.

Once I’ve got a good handle on the content and vocal delivery I can start integrating gestures. This usually isn’t terribly hard for me, because the material nearly always gives me some hints as what gestures will add at a given moment. When I approach it this way the gestures are pretty natural and easy to remember.

The last piece for me is called blocking. This is a theater term, meaning where the performers are to be on the stage at a given moment. As I mentioned briefly in my last article, blocking can be used for turning the stage into a great big visual aid. Obviously, it is appropriate to be stage center when you have a “central” or key point to make. A particular area of the stage can represent some experience or situation you are describing in your speech, and gesturing back to that area later on can be a shorthand way of taking the audience back to that experience.

Of course, in the Toastmaster world, the presentation area can vary enormously from contest to contest, and the competitor may need to adapt — sometimes with enormous creatively — depending on what is given to work with.

Then, of course, all these elements have to come together in a way that makes it look seamless.

Some of these things may seem inconsequential or marginal, but they really do add up.

You might be thinking at this point, it’s just a speech, Daniel.

No, it’s not. These things have become more than “just speeches.” These are performances. They’re a little bit acting, stand-up comedy, storytelling, mime — and anything else anyone can add to expand the dimensions of what goes into a winning Toastmaster speech.

The Toastmaster contest speech — and, by extension, public speaking in general — is limited only by the imagination and the skills the presenter can bring to it.

Area D1, March 30, 2004

At the Area D1 Contest, I was honestly still a little bit weak in the memorization department. I had taken a short whimsical little vignette I’d written in the early 1980s (more about the actual writing of the speech in an upcoming article) and had turned it around into a contest-level speech in what was for me a very short amount of time.

The Tall Tales contest that evening didn’t strike me as a strong one. I have only a vague memory of the presentations of two of the other contestants, one being repetitive and — frankly — too cute for it’s own good, and the other being well presented but having no real magic.

The event was held in a church that leased its space in a business complex, and the stage was a raised platform a couple of steps above the main floor. I don’t remember my nerves being as bad that night than at the C5 contest three weeks before. Grover Prowell, the Toastmaster (master of ceremonies) for the Tall Tales contest introduced me, and I took the stage briskly and, after a few moments, jumped in.

Maybe a half a minute into the speech my nervousness diminished to the point that I was feeling the audience well, and at that moment I knew I was in the groove. They were enjoying themselves, and I was too, and at some level I think we all knew it.

The toughest moment of the speech was an audience response I hadn’t anticipated. Grover, a lanky older gentleman with an enormous, easy laugh, began laughing so hard about a third of the way into the speech that I actually lost track of where I was. The absurdity of getting overwhelmed by too much laughter caught me, and I broke out with a short laugh myself, acknowledged Grover, and shook my head. This seemed to endear me to the audience more, and it gave me the moment I needed to get my bearings and forge on.

My ending worked well and provoked a burst of surprised laughter (the speech ends with a very sudden twist), and I sat down and worried over the rough parts of the performance, but felt pretty good about it overall. As the adrenalin backed off, I realized I had not acknowledged the Toastmaster at the beginning of the speech. At the Area level this is usually regarded as a minor breach of protocol, but higher up it can be very damaging to miss it. I worried over it for a moment, and let it go.

Giving the speech had been fun. During the post-contest interview, I managed to squeeze in a quip that I was proud of the fact I had found it in myself to put together a speech with absolutely no socially redeeming value whatsoever. It is a rewarding feeling to make people laugh, and laugh well.

After this, of course, I had to wait through the rest of the event for the announcement of the winners.

Something I remember vividly about the International contest for that Area was the speech presented by Linda Bown, fellow member of Jackpot Speakers. It was a thoughtful and evocative message about the real strength of America, and it stole the contest. There was a touching moment in the speech where Linda made a single step down from stage level in order to emphasize a point, bringing her closer to the audience, symbolically brushing aside the division between herself and her listeners. The effect of this simple gesture was so profound I could feel it wash over the crowd like a sudden, gentle sunrise.

Finally, the end of the event brought the announcement of the winners, and not only did I take first place in the Tall Tales contest, Linda walked away with first place in the International contest, too.

It was a Jackpot night.

Division D, April 17, 2004

The Division D contest was held in a big conference room at the Las Vegas National Golf Club (at least, on that day it was the Las Vegas National Golf Club — the club has changed names several times over the last few years, and for all I know it’s something else now).

Shortly after arriving I spent some time pacing outside, running over the speech in my head and trying to get a focus. Here I was hitting my third audience that contest season, and I was probably as nervous as I was for the International contest six weeks prior (see “The Ordeal of the Fish — First Area Contest”). Yet, I felt more confident of my material.

One thing I try to do in getting ready for a speech is to “vibe out” the room. If it’s early enough I go to the presentation area and go through my speech in my mind to familiarize myself with how I’ll be able to move. Later, I’ll find a corner and get a feel of the crowd as it gathers. It probably makes me look nervous, but it seems to help me get focused.

My competition for the evening was Colin Saunders, member of the club I’ll Drink to That, a man of medium build, a slight ruddiness to his cheeks, a cherubic smile, and a touch of his native British reserve. He was in fact competing in both contests (a rarity at Division level) and word was he was both compelling and had remarkable dry wit. I ran into him in the restroom while he was getting into a subdued costume for his Tall Tales speech, which consisted of a sports jacket and what looked like a lion’s tail he would let fall out from under the jacket toward the end of his story.

His speech was excellent, an odd little tale called “The Green, Green, Green Grass of Home,” about his good friend Robin, who was as wide as he was tall (hence his nickname, Round Robin) who inadvertently fell into a neighborhood pond filled with the toxic waste discharge from a nearby chemical plant, and wound up not only glowing in the dark but later finding gainful employment with the Navy as a marker buoy. Colin released his tail to the floor near the end of the speech to show he too had mutated in the environment of toxic waste, but, due to the narrow, floor-level presentation space, it was seen only by the front row.

If I am remembering correctly, Colin pulled second in the speaking order and I spoke immediately after him. My connection with the audience was almost immediate, and was much easier to feel than it had been at Area, due in part to the size of the crowd (probably around ninety) and being physically closer to them. My overall impression is that it all went very well, and I remember feeling so good after I handed the stage back to the Toastmaster that I unwittingly did a little “Snoopy dance” of satisfaction.

Division contests feature a meal between contests, and I sat at the same table as Linda Bown, her husband Kim, and daughter Lara. It was an extremely strong International contest, and after Colin Saunders presented his International, it was clear that Linda had some serious competition. Cheryl Baker, wife of Jackpot founder Narayanan Doraswamy, was representing their home club, Summerlin Toasters. She was unfortunately hampered by a nasty cold which, at least in my view, took the wind out of the sails of a brilliant, engaging speech. Both the other contestants gave very good performances, finishing out a memorable competition.

Traditionally the Tall Tales winners are announced before the International, and as my tension mounted, Linda and I traded glances.

Third place, representing Summerlin Toasters, Jenna Quigley.

Second place, Colin Saunders.

I felt confident that Colin and I were the sharpest presentations that night. I looked across at Linda, and I’m sure we both had the same thought: Who else could it be?

First Place, Daniel Brenton.

Yes!

(I was going to District, I was going to District …)

Linda, unfortunately, did not fair as well. Colin Saunders took first that night in International, and would also be representing Division D at the District contest.

Colin Saunders was certainly a force to be reckoned with. He had nearly swept both contests.

But he didn’t.

(I was going to District, I was going to District …)

Needless to say, it took me quite a while to get to sleep that night.

• • •

In the next installment, after a tedious cross country journey and wrung out by a disheartening, inconvenient virus, the author faces yet another unknown audience for one final round, in shining cosmopolitan Modesto.

Yippee yi yo, ki yay.

The other articles in this series:
1. Yes, Talking Fish
2. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – The Arena
3. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – First Area Contest
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 revised from a previous version (no longer available)
which was published on this site October 7, 2006.

End

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Daniel

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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