While the adrenalin is still flowing from the District 59 Toastmasters Conference (on which I reported in my previous post), I thought that I would pen a few words about the “other” contest that featured there – the Speech Evaluation Contest. I think that the Speech Evaluation Contest is the trickiest of all Toastmasters contests. It requires you to be rigorously analytical in a very short period of time about a speech that you have just heard.
Contestants hear a 7-minute “target speech” about which they know nothing (including the identity of the speaker) beforehand. They then have 5 minutes in which to prepare notes. After 5 minutes, the Sergeant-at-Arms collects the notes and, one at a time, the contestants come back into the room to give a 3.5 minute evaluation. They have the option of using their notes which are handed back to them when it is their turn.
I competed in the District 59 Speech Evaluation Contest in Prague, Czech Republic in 2008 and had the good fortune to win against stiff competition, so I know how tough it is to go through the four rounds to get to the top. Along the way, I picked up a thing or two that might be helpful to those thinking about competing in this great contest in the future.
For those of you who are members of Linked In, there is a great discussion on the topic and loads of insights from Toastmasters from all over the world. If you are not a member of Linked In – which you can join for free – you will not, unfortunately, be able to view the discussion. However, I repeat below the thoughts that I offered in that forum. They are not all-encompassing, and they might not all work for you, but there should be one or two helpful nuggets.
1. Know the four criteria against which you will be judged: analytical quality (40); recommendations (30); technique (15); and summation (15). Study the judges ballot and make sure you nail each point.
2. Sit near the front, slightly to the side. It allows you to hear the speaker and to get a sense as to whether he or she is making sufficient eye contact with the two sides of the room. And, if the speakers voice drops and you catch yourself straining to hear, you can note that if you had problems, it must have been even more difficult for those farther back.
3. Once or twice, cast a very quick glance back at the audience to gauge their interest or reaction to something. You can then reference it, if appropriate (see Point 5 below), in your evaluation.
4. Have an original opening. Dispense with the bland “Joe, that was a great speech.” You need to express the sentiment, but not that way. One of the best ways is to try to analogize the topic of the speech to the structure of a speech. What do I mean by this? Example: The target speech for my District Contest last year was about a woman’s introspective journey to her roots. She is from New Zealand but of Polish origin. Her speech started with a camping trip in New Zealand and wove its way back to her father’s home town in Poland and finished back in NZ. (There was much more to it than that, but you get the idea.) So my opening was something like this: “Fellow Toastmasters, today we heard a very personal speech about an exceptional journey. When you think about it, a good speech is like a good journey. You need to prepare. You want to start off well and with a good plan. You need to manage the transitions through the different parts of your journey smoothly. Etc.” I realize that being able to do this depends in large part on the content of the speech but if you can pull it off, you will distinguish yourself. Keep it in mind.
5. It is all about YOUR opinion. Never say things like “We found it difficult to follow” or “You went a bit too fast for us on that part”. You can only speak for yourself, not the audience. There are some limited exceptions to this rule (see Points 2 and 3 above) but be completely certain before deigning to speak on behalf of the entire audience.
6. Practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can rehearse evaluations or at least aspects of them in your mind. Also, try to do an evaluation at each of your club meetings before the contest. At our club, we save a spot for all evaluation contestants to do a speech evaluation at the meeting and then encourage the audience to provide written evaluations of the evaluation. I still have a bundle of notes that I received last year. They really helped.
7. YouTube. Type in “Toastmasters Evaluation” and you could be there for days. Watch different evaluations to get a sense of different styles and techniques. Better yet: watch the target speech. Do an evaluation of it yourself and then compare it against what the actual contestants did.
8. We tend to focus on big openings and closings and they are, indeed, important. But don’t forget the middle. In middle of the evaluation, try to make something really “stick”. One thing and one thing only. As you’re at the contest preparing, rigorously ask yourself that question: “What can I really make stick in the middle of my evaluation?” In Prague, the target speech was excellent and I was mildly panicked that I would not have any constructive criticism, but there is always something to improve. My speaker used very dramatic gestures and at one point I thought it was a bit too much. So in my evaluation, I compared using gestures in a speech to the way a world class chef uses spices in his cooking – to enhance the flavour of the meal but not to overpower it. I had people coming up to me afterwards saying that the analogy was very vivid and that they would always remember it. It stuck!
9. Have a good ending. This is obvious, but it is critical. It counts for 15 points and is often the difference. Many excellent evaluations do not win because the contestant went too long and could not give a summation. You must summarize your evaluation to have a fighting chance. And please avoid the bland and overused “I look forward to your next speech”.
10. The little things make a big difference. Often, on any given day, anyone can win. So the little things take on increased importance. Some ideas: (a) When called up, walk confidently and SMILE! It makes a good first impression. (b) After shaking hands with the Contest Chair, WAIT until he or she has left the stage and sat down. The time does not start until you start and waiting allows you to breathe deeply, acclimatize to the stage and let the audience settle. AND, it comes across as showing poise and confidence. (c) I recommend referring to the chair as “Contest Chair”. It is short, can be rehearsed as part of your practice and applies to men and women. I have, to my amazement, watched contestants stumble over “Madam Evaluation Contest Chairperson” (12 syllables!) when they just do not need to. (d) Finish like a PRO! After you have finished, extend your arm, palm up toward the Contest Chair and confidently say “Contest Chair!” And then, please, please, please, DO NOT MOVE until the Contest Chair has come up and shaken your hand. It never ceases to amaze me when contestants end meekly and start walking off the stage while the Chair chases them to shake their hand. It is FREE STAGE TIME. The audience is clapping, you are standing there smiling, the clock has stopped. It shows poise and politeness to wait those 5 seconds to shake the Chair’s hand.