In less than two weeks, the 2010 Toastmasters International Convention will begin in Palm Desert, California. As always, the highlight will be the International Speech Contest.
There will be nine Semi-finals, each featuring nine contestants. The nine winners will square off against each other in the Final. Of the 81 contestants who have survived the previous four rounds of the International Speech Contest process, only one will be crowned the 2010 World Champion of Public Speaking.
I was one of the 35,000+ people who entered the International Speech Contest this year. I made it to the District level (the fourth round) but did not place. That’s the way it goes: sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t.
Having competed in several Toastmasters speech contests, I have learned a lot. But if I could only give one piece of advice to those who are considering tossing their hats in the contest ring, it would be this:
Don’t focus on winning.
Focus on your message to the audience.
My first Toastmasters speech contest was the 2008 Speech Evaluation Contest. I was very focused on winning. Working my way through the different rounds, I reached the District level (the highest round for that contest) and won. Later that year, I entered the Humorous Speech Contest. Same focus; same result. So far, so good.
In 2009, I entered the International Speech Contest for the first time and again my focus was on the prize. I got a rude awakening. Twice.
At our Club contest (the first level), I finished third out of four contestants. I was only able to advance to the next round because the winner was not able to go. (The top two from the club advance.) I reworked the speech and made it to the District level where I came second, falling just short of a trip to the International Convention in the United States.
What I learned about speech contests is that a competitor’s focus should be completely on delivering the speech – and its message – to the audience. It is the only thing that is 100% within your control. You cannot control the venue; you cannot control the other contestants (short of booing or throwing things at them while they are on stage!); and you cannot control the judging.
Over the years, I have participated in a lot of organized sports such as hockey, cycling, rowing, rugby and football. In those kinds of competitions, it is easy to know who wins. Score more points and you win. Cross the finish line first and you win.
Figure skating, not hockey
A speech contest is different. If it were a sport, it would be like gymnastics or figure skating. Competitors go one at a time and are evaluated by a panel of judges against a set of criteria. But judges are human and each will process your speech differently.
At the District Conference in The Hague, there were seven judges in a room of approximately 300 people. Had the judges been different, I might have won. Or someone else might have won. Or the result might have been exactly the same. You just don’t know.
I have entered other speech contests since then, but always with my focus on my message. Some I have won and some I have not. By focusing on the message, the victories were a nice bonus and the non-victories (nobody “loses” a speech contest) were a minor disappointment overshadowed by the thrill of having been able to share a message with so many people.
So focus on your speech. Focus on sharing a message that will resonate with your audience long after the event, regardless of the outcome. If you do that, you will have done your job.
For an excellent article on developing the right attitude for a speech contest, read Thinking Like a Loser by John Kinde.
And good luck to all those who are competing!