Challenging the Advanced Speaker

Challenging the Advanced Speaker

Don’t be afraid. You know more than you think!

By Heike Vogt

As a Toastmaster you might find it daunting to evaluate speakers whom you consider far more accomplished than you. There they are, delivering their bravura performances while you are struggling to jot down one or two recommendations.

“I just couldn’t find anything!” a relatively new Toastmaster-evaluator told me the other night about what she termed a “star speech.” It’s true that most of us need some time to get used to the fact that in Toastmasters it really is okay to challenge one another. Many of us still equate ‘recommendation’ with ‘criticism’ and criticism is bad. But it is equally true that all who speak at Toastmasters deserve to go home with at least one good challenge. And as an evaluator, it is your job to deliver it.

You might feel that your knowledge of public speaking is still too limited to pick out a few pieces of chaff from all that wheat. However, chances are you know more than you think. You have been listening to professional speakers for most of your adult life. Business leaders, politicians on TV, your local vicar, car salesmen or campaigners all speak to live. Therefore, you already have a good feeling for what works.

Why not take your evaluation cues from there and shape your perceptions into a well-structured tool kit of knowledge? I suggest you begin by considering a list of speech components. What makes or breaks a speech? Start with your own observations and enhance them with what you find in various Toastmasters manuals. Be sure to read the manual, Effective Speech Evaluation, that was included in your New Member Kit. Also, be sure to check the speaker’s manual for a project evaluation guide.

Next, practice the art of evaluation by listening to a professional speech and evaluating it privately. Note how well a single component was handled. If you pay attention, you will be able to identify whether a speaker could have achieved her objectives better. You will be able to name the stumbling blocks that exist for even the most competent and confident speakers.

The fact that you have to look that little bit harder should not deter you. Yes, accomplished speakers display confidence, great rapport with the audience and a dazzling stage presence. Still, a truly fantastic speech, one that works on all levels and underlines the speaker’s unique personality, consists of much more than that.

To get you started, I picked four examples of areas that I have seen otherwise great speakers battle. Have confidence in your own perceptions and work on extending the list. Before long, you will pose valuable challenges to your fellow Toastmasters – even to the brilliant ones.

1.  Sloppy speechwriting. A well-known European Union Commissioner with a few thousand speeches under his belt visited my workplace and had the audience distractedly fiddling with their pens five minutes into the speech. His mistake? Hiring a bad speechwriter. He started his speech by outlining for a whole 10 minutes and in great detail all the administrative steps our work entailed. The problem was, we knew this already. This was a great speaking opportunity that started with a whimper rather than a bang.

Sloppy speechwriting will bring down even world-class speakers. Learn to listen analytically. Start with that politician on TV, for example. Make sure to look beyond the impressive exterior. Does her or his speech have structure? Can you follow it easily? Does it achieve its declared objective? Is it appropriate to the audience? The delivery is perfect, but do you feel blinded with science? You will be amazed at how often great form covers up inferior content.

2.  Slipping into the “speaker persona.” The “speaker persona” is the personality some take on as soon as they perform center-stage. It is usually the guise they believe the majority of the audience likes. However, while your fellow Toastmaster star speaker might come across as decently rational and mildly intellectual by using a canned speech and picture-book hand gestures, you the evaluator wonder where she has left her outstanding passion, her razor-sharp wit and her sometimes erratic but original body language.

Therefore, when you evaluate, ask yourself whether the perfection in front of you has come at a price. You will find that advanced speakers in particular need to be jolted out of their polished routines. Could they show us a bit more of who they really are? Could they experiment with body language? Could they use more of their inspired humor and less of their ambitious-businessman spiel? Could they actually give up wanting to be liked?

3.  Unsatisfactory voice projection. Depending on the venue, voice projection is not easy to master. If your club, like mine, happens to meet above a bar or in close vicinity to another public place with some levels of noise, this can be particularly tricky. Ideally, all members of the audience understand the speech perfectly well, without those in the first row flinching or those in the back row cupping their ears. Superior speakers use perfect diction and project their voices evenly without the aid of electronic equipment.

If you habitually sit anywhere close to the lectern, you cannot really evaluate a speaker’s control of his voice. Try sitting at the back of the room, away from the speaker. Also, observe other members of the audience: Are they visibly straining to hear? This should give you a good idea of whether you could suggest some further voice work.

4.  Being let down by props. A vast number of speeches demand the use of props, whether it be objects, devices or electronic equipment. It is astounding how often even those who should know better fail to foolproof their prop’s appearance in the speech. Bill Gates famously delivered a glitch-plagued presentation in Las Vegas early in 2005 where during the show a remote PC at Microsoft repeatedly crashed and left the audience with blank screens. When this happened (as it does to all of us), he did not have a backup plan and was immediately upstaged by his comedian co-host who jumped at the opportunity to make a few prickly asides about Microsoft.

While the stakes are not quite that high at Toastmasters, glitches can still slam the brakes on an otherwise great speech. Watch out for how props are used: Do they force the speaker to turn his back to the audience? Are they too small to be seen by all? Do they take too much attention away from the speech? Could the speaker have enlisted some help in anticipation of trouble?

Evaluating the advanced can be a challenge. It requires you to speak up and actively help those around you to progress, no matter what your current stage of development. Therefore, work toward constantly extending your knowledge. It will help you gain the confidence necessary for having a well-founded opinion. If you hone your perceptions by studying and analyzing professional speeches, you will soon be able to help even the most superior orator to improve. And you will learn much more about public speaking than you ever thought possible. 

Heike Vogt, is a freelance writer and member of Holborn Speakers club in London, England. Reach her at