In which the author — dragged down by an inconvenient bug and an equally inconvenient lack of sleep — rides into cosmopolitan Modesto for the final contest showdown.
Going the distance through all the levels of a speech contest must be a little like a marathon. Now, I’ve never run a marathon, so I don’t understand the experience personally, but I have friends who have, and clearly it’s grueling.
In its own way, a speech contest can be, too.
I estimate I probably put in about 60 hours writing, rewriting and rehearsing (or should I say “hearsing and rehearsing?”) “The Ordeal of the Fish” for that season. I understand it is not unusual for the serious International competitor to put in over 100 hours to get their speech to District, and probably a comparable amount (or more) for each of the next two levels.
I was not facing this level of competition with the Tall Tales contest. The Tall Tale is an strange animal, and I am told it is a hard one to judge and a harder one to execute. Just after my Division win, the then Immediate Past District Governor Bruce Louie called my speech a perfect example of what a Tall Tale speech should be.
Flattering, and bittersweet at the same time. It’s the nature of Toastmaster contests that you really can’t recycle material, certainly not verbatim, and a winning speech — if you can take it the distance — will wind up retired to a shelf somewhere, a pleasant memory collecting dust.
(Yes, Grasshopper … that which passes, passes like clouds.)
How do I get to Carnegie Hall? — Practice, Practice, Practice.
No matter how many awards, what kind of praise, what glowing prognostications you receive on the success of your speech, you can still get utterly sick of it.
When I was in “contest mode,” it was not unusual for me to spend an hour or two a night in front of the big wall mirror I had in our kitchen (I didn’t have a video camera) and work my material over and over and over.
There were times when practice came easily, and times when I was tired and forced myself through it, and times where I had to shut it out for the night in resigned disgust.
On that last three-week stretch between Division and District, I clearly remember hitting a wall, a place where I had to ask: why am I doing this to myself?!
David Brooks, the 1990 winner of the Toastmaster International Speech contest, points out one thing you have under your control as a contestant is to not let your competition out-practice you.
Yes, I did want to win. This was my personal Mt. Whitney, in preparation for my personal Mt. McKinleys and Mt. Everests.
Just once, I wanted to reach the summit.
The District level was the finish line, and I wasn’t there yet. The question was, could I make it?
District 33, April 30 through May 2, 2004
Because I had won the Tall Tales contest, the Division paid the registration for me for the conference (some Divisions don’t do that, which is a shame) and set aside a room reservation for me to pick up.
Of course, I still had to get there.
District 33 is pretty big. There are probably bigger districts, so I probably shouldn’t whine.
There would be a tendency in our District to gravitate toward having our conferences in Las Vegas due to the gambling and entertainment industry of the city, but in order demonstrate a sense of geographical fairness the conferences are held in the California side of the District as well.
This season, Modesto.
Nothing against the city, really. I ventured out of the Double Tree Hotel only a couple of times to a Starbucks for bagels and such. The city pretty much shuts down at night, and after all these years living in Phoenix and Vegas it felt a little like I had stumbled into a cow town.
Which, come to think of it, I had.
Friday, April 30
I was invited to ride along with Narayanan Doraswamy, his wife Cheryl Baker, and Summerlin Toaster member Brian Harrington. Naryanan and Cheryl made the journey about as enjoyable as a five hour drive could be — we chatted about all manner of things, listened to a diverse range of music (from Bluegrass to Classical to Zydeco) and generally got to know each other better.
Earlier in the week, my energy levels had been pretty low, which was worrisome at the time. I think I had a low-grade flu or virus, and I had just seen a nasty cold get in Cheryl’s way when she competed at Division D (see “The Ordeal of the Fish” – To the Area Again, and Beyond). The day of the drive in I felt pretty good, and was less concerned.
A district conference is usually a pretty elaborate affair. The keynote speaker, professional speaker Ty Howard, was holding an invitation-only workshop on becoming a professional speaker, and I had finagled an invitation through the then District Governor, Debra Ristau.
We made it in time, got settled, and Narayanan and I attended the workshop, which turned out to be part workshop and part sales pitch (naturally) for a package of forms and “how to” guidance to point the user at a shoestring-budget launch into professional speaking. I didn’t have the cash flow to buy his product, but I appreciated the presentation. At the time I was putting serious thought into becoming a professional speaker, and any input was welcome.
Toward the evening I began to feel run down again, and figured I’d better rest. There was a “no host” reception that evening, and I hung out long enough to do the buffet line and went to bed.
Saturday, May 1
The next morning I felt pretty good, and the day was filled with what sounds like pretty normal fare for district conferences — opening ceremonies, some educationals, a luncheon featuring Ty Howard as the keynote speaker. In the afternoon I holed up in my room and practiced my speech to help keep it sharp. The contest was to be late the next morning.
That evening was the International Contest, which, at that level, was a black tie dinner affair. I sat at the same table with Rocky DeLorenzo, who had beaten me and several other people at the International back in Area C5 (see “The Ordeal of the Fish” – First Area Contest). He had also defeated the odds-on favorite George Gilbert at the Division C contest. Rocky had been a member of Jackpot for some time, and Colin Saunders, after seeing Rocky’s speech and getting a sense of the level of speaking Rocky had achieved and the support that got him there, had joined Jackpot to take advantage of the coaching environment as well. Though neither were representing Jackpot directly, between the three of us the presence of the club was making itself known. Rocky, reprising a honed version of “Made in China,” his touching speech about adopting his daughter, in fact won the contest out of the field of six, and Colin Saunders took second.
After celebrating his win for a few hours, Rocky told me he would hang for the Tall Tales contest. It would make catching his flight a little tight, but he sincerely wanted to show his support, which was a welcome gesture.
Sunday, May 2
Between taking forever to get to sleep and not being able to go back to sleep early morning, I got about three hours of rest altogether that night. Here I had gone all this distance only to have another obstacle pop up in my path that could ruin the my efforts.
(I could use harsh language, but I think you get the idea.)
As I brooded over my situation I discovered nothing was open early in downtown Modesto either.
(Now, this is the 21st Century, right?)
As the morning wore on I noticed I was actually in a kind of punchy, silly mood. Which, it occurred to me, might actually be an advantage.
Because I was holding a voting proxy for a contested District office, I attended the District Council Meeting in this state of mind, and was actually shushed by past District Governor Bruce Louie (sitting at the same table) for cutting up.
Fortunately, I made it to the contest without further mishap. Rocky DeLorenzo, good to his word, joined me at my table, and the games began.
I drew second in the speaking order, right after Greta Balayan, whose speech “My Dancing Career,” took us on her personal odyssey as the dance partner for Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, and … Queen Elizabeth (?). Pulling the preferred last position out of the six was the contestant I was really worried about, the California favorite Keith Connes. Keith is an older gentleman with an extensive acting background, who told us the very funny and imaginative tale of “The Magic Moonstone,” wherein he magically acquired the talent to be a lion tamer, and just as magically lost the talent at exactly the wrong moment.
Governor Ristau, instead of making the crowd and contestants wait until after brunch was served to announce the contest results, and being eager herself to announce them, bypassed traditional protocol and went ahead.
The field of contestants was extremely uneven — two of which seemed disappointingly like Area level speeches. Greta Balayan, though, deserved to place, and she took third.
The Governor announced second place: “My favorite lion tamer, Keith Connes!”
Just as I had caught fellow Jackpot member Linda Bown’s eyes back at the Division D contest when First Place looked like it was mine, I caught Rocky DeLorenzo’s eyes and made the statement silently: who else could it be?
“And First Place,” Governor Ristau announced, “a man who loves fish, Daniel Brenton!”
I did it. I had reached the top of my Mt. Whitney.
I was in a cloud at that summit, all the way home.
• • •
Courtesy of Jackpot founder Narayanan Doraswamy and YouTube you can view my District 33 performance below.
Note: I have used a basic level cable internet access in the past, and at times when I viewed the video it could be pretty choppy. I’m assuming this is due to the some variation in the download rate the service provides.
If you run into this you can try pausing the video for a few moments after it starts loading and let it buffer for a minute or so, and when you un-pause you should be able to watch it without interruption.
If you’re on dial-up I don’t think there’s any point in trying to watch this. (Sorry, but it’s all I have.)
Having competed twice more in Toastmaster events (the fall “Humorous Speech” contest in both 2004 and 2008), and having participated as a judge in numerous contests in the years since my Tall Tales run, I am still proud of my success, and still feel I earned it, but a few sour, persistent notes have appeared in the music of this victory.
Frankly, the hit-or-miss quality of Toastmaster judging makes me question how proud I should be in my success.
I saw the division contest where one of my district Tall Tales competitors had won, and I wasn’t the only one to scratch my head and wonder how such a weakly written and performed piece of material had gotten out of an area contest, let alone had gotten the judges’ nods to go on to district.
And, on the other hand, I have heard stories from sources I trust about excellent presentations deep-sixed by judges out of sheer personal pettiness.
Additionally, there was a “common wisdom” at the time that judges tended to vote for contestants from their own state — District 33 covers most of southern Nevada and a portion of central California.
As I have mentioned previously, there was (at least as of 2008) is no real mechanism for judge’s accountability built into Toastmaster judging, and this is a serious flaw in the contest process … which in turn points to a lack of concern that Toastmaster International has toward the integrity of contests and consistent treatment of competitors and the effort they put in.
On a more personal note, it is clear that when a prospective contestant puts together material, the contestant needs to have a good handle on the audience in order to know if the material is going to be accessible. In the fall of 2004 I competed in the Humorous Speech Contest, and made it all the way to district but did not place there. Part of this could rightly be attributed to a microphone problem (a problem which I couldn’t hear from the stage), but another part was something I hadn’t considered. A year later, the presiding chief judge of the district contest told me that my material had been “too smart for the room.”
A number of Toastmaster “World Champions of Public Speaking” (winners of the International Speech Contest) achieved their success in one run — and one that comes to mind, Darren LaCroix — will claim that it was their preparation and skills that made them the winners (and Darren and other World Champions would be delighted to teach you these same skills, for a price).
Darren and the other Champions have enviable abilities, but this isn’t the only thing that made them winners of The International.
You can call it luck that they didn’t run into judges that didn’t know what they were doing or had some agenda that blew them out of the water before they reached the International stage. Or maybe it was some “magic” of Will or Intention that set events in motion to remove these same obstacles.
Whatever that combination was, I had it for my 2004 Tall Tales run. I had the right kind of material, a good level of skill in presentation, and the fortune of having judges that appeared to judge fairly.
But, frankly, the niggling sour note of Toastmaster judging make me wonder if there were better presenters with better speeches that would have sent my presentation packing that somehow unfairly got washed out at some level before district. This I will never know.
Don’t get me wrong — I certainly don’t regret the experience. A talking fish did make me a changed man, and having seen firsthand the power that a speech can have over an audience I have discovered a dimension to myself I never would have otherwise.
If you are so inclined, I encourage you to give it a try.
(Just go in with your eyes open.)
• • •
The next (and last) article will look in depth at the writing of “The Ordeal of the Fish,” from the original brief story to the working script of the speech.
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
4. “The Ordeal of the Fish” – To the Area Again, and Beyond
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 10, 2006.