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. 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!

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

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Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

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Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

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Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International