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How to Plan a Speech Contest

 By Janet Reese, DTM

Collectively, Toastmasters clubs run thousands of speech contests around the world every year. Such events offer great benefit to everyone involved: speakers, judges, audience members and those who plan such programs.

As an area governor last year, I put myself on the planning side, by chairing two contests in Denver, Colorado. The experience was invaluable: It taught me how to orchestrate a high-level contest and lead a team in executing a big event. Now I can apply what I learned to real-life situations, such as setting up events and running meetings. You, too, can enjoy these same benefits from contest experiences.

Planning a successful contest involves five key components:

1. Book a venue. My first task was securing a suitable room. At the time, local library meeting rooms were booked far in advance and recreation centers charged a fee. I got creative and asked a nearby retirement community if we could use their state-of-the-art meeting room with comfortable audience seating. They eagerly agreed and offered the room free of charge – for two contests!

Event space is a critical element in contests, say veteran speakers. Ideal venues offer low ceilings, a clear stage view and close proximity between the stage and the first row of chairs.

2. Handpick a team. Running a contest effectively means that you must delegate roles and recruit volunteers. Select people who are dependable and experienced to fill key positions, such as chief judge, sergeant at arms and timer. I was contest chair for my division contest and asked each area governor to be a judge or to select one for balanced representation.

Area Governor Carolina Moore from District 33 in Las Vegas, Nevada, advises, “Remember that your area is more than just you. It’s a group of clubs, each with members and leadership that you can – and should – draw from. Set your expectations up front, by email, phone calls and during your area governor club visits.” 

3. Create an agenda. Early on, design a contest agenda template and add the details as they become available: contestants (remember that their eligibility must be confirmed), contest team, visiting officers, the program and timeline, sponsor and volunteer credits, and upcoming events. A timeline keeps your program on track from start to finish. I used my agenda as a script, much like I use an agenda at club meetings.

For interest, include inspiring or humorous quotes in your agenda, as well as graphics, sponsor logos and easy-to-read typefaces. Print plenty of copies and make sure everyone has one at the start. Use the agenda template for future contests.

4. Communicate clearly and often. A contest chair can never over-communicate with the contest team and contestants. I chose club presidents and area governors as my liaisons for the information and contacts I needed. Secure contacts’ email addresses and group them for frequent and clear instructions about contest location, time, speech titles and team roles. After the contest, send emails to the contest chair at the next level of the competition, with the winners’ complete contact information. 

5. Generate publicity. It’s vital to let other clubs and the community at large know about an upcoming contest. To publicize events, take advantage of free social networking tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. Ban Seng Chew, DTM, a member of the YMCA Toastmasters in Singapore, says the Internet is a useful tool for generating publicity. “Printed mass media are expensive and not easily accessible,” he says. “We use social networking, including the club, division and district websites.”

Also, remember to publicize the contest winners with your local media. I did this using a citizen journalism tool that my local newspaper, the Denver Post, features online. I submitted a photo of the contest winners with a caption citing the clubs they represented. I listed our District 26 website as a source for follow-up information. Voila! The picture appeared in the print version of, a community site for sharing news and photos.

When chairing a contest, remember these five key components and your contest is sure to be a smashing success!

This is a condensed version of an article by Janet Reese that appears in the November issue of the Toastmaster magazine.

Janet Reese, M.A., DTM, is a member of the Liberty Toastmasters club in Denver, Colorado. She is a communications specialist, speaker, presentation coach and freelance writer. You can reach her at