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How I Conquered My Contest Fears

Speech Contests Are For You, Too!

By Angie Palmer, DTM

When speech contest season arrives, many new members wonder if they should participate. “Contest” can be a frightening word to inexperienced members. Manual speeches are intimidating enough, without adding competition to the challenge

Indeed, I secretly had the same reaction when I was a new member. Of course, not every member shares the same sentiment. My ex-husband, Keith, had only been a member for a few months – with just his Ice Breaker under his belt – when he jumped right into the Humorous Speech Contest. His speech was called “Selling Your Wife” – a title you can imagine I was not thrilled with. Keith caught the audience’s attention right from his opening line: “Selling your wife has become one of the more difficult things in life to accomplish.” I was wondering where he was going with this.

He explained that he wanted to help husbands sell their wives on – a humorous play on the definition “sell an idea to…” – purchasing the latest “toys” on the market. With that speech, Keith made it all the way to the district level – the first member in our club’s history to advance that far. He was an excellent example of why new members should not shy away from competing.

Essentially, every Toastmaster is eligible to compete in almost all speech contests. The only criteria are that the member must be in good standing in the club, and the club must be in good standing with Toastmasters International, with all dues and membership applications current. The only exception is the International Speech Contest, which calls for members to complete a minimum of six speech projects from the Competent Communication manual in order to participate.

Giving It a Try
The following year, when Keith and I joined the Moundbuilders Toastmasters club in Newark, Ohio, it happened to be contest season again. The vice president education asked for volunteers to enter the competitions and I bravely raised my hand for both the Humorous Speech and Table Topics contests.

I was nervous and didn’t think I was proficient enough to enter any speech contests. A Humorous Speech Contest, in particular, was an item on my impossible list. After all, humor can be culture-specific and subjective, and I was a person of Hong Kong Chinese heritage who had only lived in the United States for a few years. Delivering jokes that appeal to a large, general audience is a skill that must be honed over time. But I wanted to tackle this challenge, so I entered our club contest with a speech titled, “My Culture Shock.” It touched on the culture shock I experienced in the United States as well as the cultural collisions experienced between husbands and wives.

I never expected to be the first-place winner – but that’s exactly what happened. After winning the club contest, I became more confident in my humorous-speaking skills. Things I thought I could not do suddenly became possible.

In the course of preparing for and participating in these two contests, I gained valuable stage experience. I learned how to rewrite my speech to get the audience reaction I wanted. In addition, I observed and learned from proficient speakers, gaining valuable insights on how to give humorous and Table Topics speeches. It was also a perfect opportunity to network with other Toastmasters and share our experiences. Moreover, my club’s feedback during this entire process helped me improve as a speaker.

So how did I do in the two contests? I came in second in both – at the division level! Things happen when you least expect it. I entered the speech competitions mainly to conquer my fear of trying humor in front of an American audience, but this exciting experience gave me much more than I ever expected.

This is a condensed version of an article by Angie Palmer that originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of the Toastmaster magazine.

Angie Palmer, DTM, is the owner of Skye Public Relations and can be reached at