The Number One Rule for Speech Contests

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. I worked my way through the different rounds and when I reached the District level (the highest round for that contest) I 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 from that contest season 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.

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!

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Speech Contests, Toastmasters and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Number One Rule for Speech Contests

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Cincinnati | Manner of Speaking

  2. Pingback: The Mark of a Champion | Manner of Speaking

  3. suzieicus says:

    Haii, nice to read your blog. I’m suzie from SCBD Toastmasters club, Jakarta Indonesia. Here is my blog:

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Suzie. Thank you for stopping by and best of luck with the good work that you are doing for child education.


      • suzieicus says:

        Thank you John! I’m happy knowing you. I really like Education, English and Public Speaking. Maybe, I can consult with you about Public Speaking, you’re excellent at it.

  4. Excellent advice John. Darren LaCroix says (paraphrasing) “What is the message that you want to deliver to the person in row 4, seat D?” Imagine that it is your brother or mother. What is the one message you would want to deliver to them. Once you have that message, deliver it to the 2,000 brothers and mothers individually.”

    BTW surprised you only have 7 judges at District conference. We always have 16, 2 from each Division.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Freddie. Thanks for the comments. I have also heard LaCroix phrase it along the lines of, “If you only had one chance to give one message to someone you care about, what would it be?” That also helps to focus the mind.

      As for the judges, I was told by a few people that the number was seven, but beyond that I do not know. But even if there were 10 or 12 or more the principle would still be the same.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.